Do you believe in demons? Demonic possession? What would you need for irrefutable evidence of such a thing? And exactly what would you do with the information when you got it?
Some perfectly good books let readers off the hook, let them set down the book and shake it off because "it's only a novel." By the end of A Good and Happy Child, readers who are brave enough will ask themselves what they could permit themselves to believe — and admit only to themselves at the end of the day as they shut off the light on the nightstand.
The book begins when George is 30 years old and has a son whom he cannot touch or even approach. Being in the same room with the infant frightens him, and he literally cannot be alone with his own child. After six months, George agrees to see a therapist. In their first encounter, George eludes to a childhood experience that might have affected his current situation, which the therapist asks him to record in notebooks.
The novel is a tapestry that weaves the notebook content with George's current life experiences. Author Justin Evans moves deftly between the two times. While I'm with the adult, I can't wait to get back to his childhood. When I am reading about the child, I'm compelled to wish myself forward to see how it all winds up.
The writing is fresh and vivid. I am able to picture the situation, the location, his home, his friends, his family. I am there, and I am captivated. There are many moments that require reflection, and these are a pleasure to contemplate. Even now, long after the last page has been turned, I still think about a scene, or a conversation, and what it ultimately meant to the characters in the novel.
The novel begins at a comfortable pace and accelerates as the story progresses. When I got to the part where the police began searching the nearby woods, I read with my mouth agape, fearing that my prediction was correct. I can understand why the ending made the author's wife wake up screaming in the middle of the night after she read it. (Of course, she read multiple iterations, so I can only imagine what previous drafts might have contained.) However, for me, it was the material that immediately proceeded that gave me my nightmares. As the tension built, I suspected the worst, and that's what I got. It was creepier and more moving than I expected, but it was perfect, sheer genius and blood-curdling.
Frankly, this reads more like a rich memoir than a novel — which is fabulous for the reader but makes me worry deeply for the writer. When we ask how much the writer delved into his own psyche for material, I pray he did not. I pray that his long conversations with Jesuit priests in the dark quiet of the office after hours, the obscure materials he might have dredged up on Lexis-Nexus, his own quirky perspective of stories he read as a child, maybe even stories told around the campfire in his native Virginia, are what make this story so compelling.