Book Review: Margot Livesey’s “The Boy in the Field”

Admittedly, this is a book that’s been on my ever-growing ‘to-read’ list for a while now, having been given to me as a gift from my Dad for the sheer reason of “there’s a dog in it” (he read a review in the paper, claiming the dog was ‘the best character’). My Dad and I share a nostalgic fondness for Enid Blyton’s “The Famous Five”: he read them when he was a boy, and I – so many years later – read them too as a child, re-narrating the adventures back to him as I finished each book. Our favourite character? Timmy. So a book featuring a loveable leading dog was a fitting choice.

Funnily enough, the inclusion of a wise, human-like canine was not where the similarities between “The Boy in the Field” and “The Famous Five” ended: they paralleled each other in numerous other ways, and very often, I felt transported once more to an Enid Blyton world of adventure, mystery and ginger beer (which was – to my great joy – mentioned towards the end of the final chapters, confirming the delightful echoes of the Famous Five even more for me).

The Plot

A disclaimer: I won’t go into great detail, but I will inevitably mention some aspects of the plot, so if you’re planning on reading this book, then skip!

The story starts – as one might expect – with a boy in a field. The three siblings are heading home from school when they happen upon an assault victim; a young boy, stabbed and left alone in a field, unconscious. With normal thriller/crime genre reads, you’d expect the rest of the novel to centre around the crime itself, the investigation, the resolution… but not this book. The boy in the field is not the central plot of the novel – sure, there are often revelations on the boy himself and the fate of his attacker, but it is by no means the prevailing thought. Instead, other storylines for each sibling dominate.

When I turned the final page, my thoughts were initially scattered – I took a couple of hours to reflect before I was able to really form my opinions and understanding on it. But that’s the point: it’s not a classic “who dun it” (in fact, when we do find out who dun it, it’s a pretty underwhelming moment), it was much cleverer than that – something I should have anticipated by the intelligence that emanated from every page. It was not about the boy in the field, and yet it was all about the boy in the field. It was about the impact that event had on these three siblings, each of whom experienced the same scarring scene in completely different ways, alluded to in the way each of them hear the boy’s singular word as he lain in the field to be something utterly different.

At least from my interpretations, I would view the event of finding the near-murdered boy, bleeding and alone in an empty field, as a metaphor in the context of this story: a metaphor for the transition to the harsh realities of adulthood. After finding the boy that day, each of the siblings just don’t feel the same as they did before. The rest of the storyline’s themes – affairs and infidelity, perverts in cemeteries, losing one’s virginity, lies and deceit, hit-and-run motorcycle accidents – are jarringly geared towards adulthood, juxtaposing the first innocent scene of three school kids making their way home from school on a summer’s day in Oxfordshire. I feel like each of them left a piece of their childhood in the field where they found the boy. Exposed to the evil of man and the fragility of life, Duncan suddenly seeks to find his birth mother, Zoe is now desperate to find her person, and Matthew seems to grow more mature than ever, and each of them independently shield their parents from fracturing in a way that children shouldn’t have to.

The Style of Writing

While the plot itself could be described by some who prefer a faster pace as a little slow at times, I found myself – more than enjoying the storyline itself – enjoying the writing. As I already mentioned, The Boy in the Field gave me much-welcomed nostalgia to my Famous-Five-fanatic-younger-self. Without even the notion of mobile phones, texting, social media or modern technology fuss, along with the constant references to classical literature, poems and sonnets, Greek mythology, museums and galleries, Roman history, and philosophy, the story did indeed seem to be as dated as The Famous Five era of the 50s, although set in the very late 1990s into the early 2000s. Moreover, each of the siblings were incredibly thoughtful, emotionally intelligent, and polite in a way that mimicked the tone of the olden days and the sociolects of Anne, George, Dick and Julian. With Matthew, Zoe, and Duncan each being on their own unique path following the discovery of the body, discovering instead a part of themselves, the story also mirrored the adventure element that accompanied each Famous Five book.

Would I recommend?

To those who read The Famous Five as children and want to desperately re-live their youth? YES.
As for recommending it to a friend or acquaintance, I think that would honestly depend on the style or genre they particularly enjoy. This book required patience and thought… but at the same time was easy-reading in the beautiful use of language, relaxing slow-pace and loveable, interesting characters. (There’s also a dog… just so you know…)

Having been on a bit of a roll with the thriller books lately, I really appreciated this little break with a story that was interesting in different ways. So if you’re willing to give it a go and try something new, then yes I would recommend!

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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