Tuesday, November 20, 2018


Title: The Boy at the Door
Author: Alex Dahl
Publisher: Berkley
Pages: 357
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

Eight-year-old Tobias is not picked up at the swimming pool by his parents. Cecilia Wilborg, married to rich banker Johan Wilborg, and mother of two lovely daughters, Nicoline and Hermine, ends up taking the boy home. But when she finds his home uninhabited, she has no option but to take him home, as the kid pleads with her not to involve the police.

The boy, it seems, has some secrets. For one, drug addict Annika Lucasson and drug dealer Krysztof Mazur, the couple he was living with, may not be his real parents. But Cecilia too has her secrets, and the mere presence of the boy makes her uncomfortable. When the body of Annika is found, with Krysztof absconding, the police begin to wonder if Cecilia had anything to do with it.

Meanwhile, Social Services ask her and her husband, Johan, to take Tobias in until a permanent foster home is found for him. While Johan and the girls take to Tobias, Cecilia holds herself back. What are the secrets that they are hiding? And why is Cecilia afraid of Tobias?

The story is written in the first person present tense points of view of Cecilia and Tobias. Every third chapter is from Tobias’ PoV. Somewhere at the intersection of both accounts, things become clearer.

The aura of menace and dread is felt quite early. The weather plays a great part in adding to the tedium and the sense of strain that Cecilia labours under. The rain, the cold and the ice permeate everything, and lend it a dreary air.

Very quickly we learn that Cecilia is hiding something, and I had my suspicions about the nature of those secrets, even though it was hard to tell when she was lying and when she was speaking the truth.

But then things became a little more muddied with Anni’s intensely personal accounts in Part 2 and 3, before and after she became clean. They were heartrending and offered us a peek into the spiral that addicts find themselves in and how powerless they are in overcoming their situation. Anni says in her account that she felt so empty because nobody misses me or wants me to come home.

There was something so dreary about that line. It reminded me of Margaret Mead’s quote about our greatest need as being that of someone wondering where we are when we don’t get home at night.

I couldn’t understand why Annika gave in to such self-destructive tendencies, but there it was. She was ill-treated and made to sleep for money by Krysz, and yet she returned to him. She seemed to be caught up in a spiral of self-destruction and there was nothing to hold her back from going berserk, once the baby was given up for adoption.

She says in her journal, Some ideas are good and some are bad, and the problem is, of course, to be able to distinguish between them, something which hasn’t come easily to me.

Cecilia admits that she is far from an ideal mother. She is far more likely to want to sit with her feet up than attend to her motherly duties. She says, The thing about men, I find, is to treat them with a carefully honed combination of casual aloofness, sharp reproach and unadulterated adoration. It throws them, keeps them on their feet – you can’t be nice all the time.

This woman is very vapid, too interested in appearances. In being the object of others’ envy and jealousy. She’s neither reliable nor likeable. When Tobias asks Cecilia if Luelle, the maid, is her sister, Cecilia feels very offended.

I could not reconcile her selfishness with her concern for Tobias. She herself admits that she is empty inside. She refers to her own children as unnoticeable, but necessary, like good bacteria in the gut.

She wants to be perfect so her husband won’t leave her. She has a tendency to overthink, constructing elaborate stories inside her head. As when she convinces herself that Johan is gay. Or when Tobias is hurt, she wonders if he has had a paper cut or has been decapitated.

Tobias is an old soul in the body of a little boy. He hears the things that people don’t say; he is extremely sensitive. You find your heart going out to him. Through his accounts, we learn of how he came to live with Anni and Krysz who were not his parents, ever since the death of Moffa, who he loved.

Tobias refers to Johan and Cecilia as the father in the house and mother in the house. We get a sense of his sense of deprivation when he describes them: They’re very strange, but at the same time, I think it must be how normal families are.

He tells us a big truth about the complicated nature of our emotions when he says, I’m afraid and I think maybe I’m angry, but they feel quite alike so I can’t be sure.

Ultimately, this book was all about Tobias. The big secret that Cecilia was hiding wasn’t so earth shattering. I wish there was more of Tobias and Anni in the book. 

(I received an ARC from First to Read).

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