There’s nothing ordinary about Alex Broccoli. He lives in a room at the top of his council house that has no heating. But he seems to prefer it that way. He wears clothes he found in a trunk that once belonged to an old man who lived in the house before him. He feels smarter in a jacket and bow tie anyway. He loves onions on toast more than anything else in the whole wide world. Especially, since you can buy a whole week’s worth of onions for very little money. And he also happens to see demons.
In fact, he has his very own demon. His name is Ruen and he comes in three avatars – Old Man, Ghost Boy and Monster — that switch based on how playful, serious or scared he’s feeling at that moment. Alex doesn’t have many friends which is why having Ruen helps. But he also knows that he can’t take everything his demon tells him at face value because he has a penchant for evil. He’s the “evil Alex” if you may.
Yes, there’s nothing ordinary about the protagonist of Carolyn Jess-Cooke’s The Boy Who Could See Demons, but then again, he isn’t a normal boy living a normal life. He’s the child living in what was once, and still threatens to be at times, a very troubled part of the UK. In fact, they even call that dark period in Northern Irish history the Troubles and this story is set in the current generation that’s still suffering the aftermath of all that went down.
Set in the backdrop of present day Belfast, The Boy Who Could See Demons, deals largely with issues of mental health among children and signs of depression in adults. It also adds fantasy to the brew with instances that linger even after the book is over. Like when Ruen ‘composes’ A Love Song for Anya and it happens to be the very same tune that haunts Alex’s therapist, the only person who has seen his condition before from a very close range. How else would Alex know personal, intimate details about her daughter’s life, death and mental health issues?
Of course, these are smaller parts of the book that leave you wondering. What you really walk away with is an insight into a disturbed adolescent’s mind given his environment at home. What you also see here is a beautiful yet dangerously flawed mother-son relationship that has you biting your nails until the climax.
But most importantly, what Carolyn Jess-Cooke paints here is the picture of a Northern Ireland that’s emerging from its own ashes and learning to live in a renewed environment without forgetting about its troubled past.
It’s very rare to find a book you go to bed and wake up reading. A page turner, this one, as the author expertly weaves a tale that is at the same time sad, fantastical, hopeful, at times, and ruinous too.
Verdict: This is the perfect book for readers across genres with a story that gives you some harsh, hopeful and riveting facts masked in the imagery of fiction.
This review originally appeared on The Caterpillar Cafe on December 3, 2013