Byron Hemmings is nobody’s idea of a hero. As Rachel Joyce’s second novel opens, it is the summer of 1972 and the overweight and unpopular 11-year-old is the odd boy out. With the exception of one friend, James, he is alone. Even his father, who spends more time at his job in London than with his family, seems not to approve of him. Perhaps it is no wonder, then, that Byron worries. When James tells him of the little rituals that keep him safe — going over the multiplication tables in his mind or “running to your bedroom before the lavatory stops flushing” — Byron finds the idea comforting.
James is a font of knowledge. He has, for example, already told Byron how two seconds are being added to clock time, to bring it in synch with the movement of the earth. James seems to view this as a curiosity. To Byron, however, it is terrifying. “Two seconds are huge,” he says. “It’s the difference between something happening and something not happening.” In fact, his worst fears appear to come true when his beautiful and beloved mother, Diana, hits a girl on her bicycle while driving through a poor neighborhood.
At first, Byron believes he can protect his mother from the repercussions of her accident. If he only works hard enough at it, he can hold his brittle family together and make up for that lapse. But the deck is stacked against the poor, chubby kid. As Joyce makes clear in her precise but pitiless prose, nobody is rooting for Byron or his middle-class family (“New money,” one neighbor sniffs). Certainly, nobody is rooting for Byron’s mother, who openly bucks the class system, inviting the bicyclist’s mother to sit with the upper-class mothers from Byron’s exclusive school and even daring to correct one wealthy woman’s racist language. And so, whether because of Diana’s daring or Byron’s lack of proper control, things begin to fall apart in a horrible, inexorable way.
The protagonist in a parallel story is Jim, another loner. After years of institutionalization and innumerable rounds of electroconvulsive therapy, Jim has little memory and less social skill. Now that the Besley Hill, the psychiatric hospital, has closed, he is managing to survive, barely, living in his van and cleaning up in a cafe. It’s the kind of work he can do with the severe obsessive-compulsive disorder that makes him, for example, step in and out of his van exactly 21 times before he enters, and barely allows him sufficient time to sleep. But until a car accident — one that leaves him with his foot in a cast — throws him into contact with a kind-hearted woman, it is not much of a life.
It is no surprise that these two outcasts (whose stories alternate) will run into each other, in the kind of inevitable convergence that marked Joyce’s celebrated debut, “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.” While both Byron and Jim are, for a time, sheltered by women, they both must move forward on their own. And while both are certainly victimized by the British class system, they are also both severely hampered by very real disabilities. To Joyce’s credit, she makes these deficits quite credible, to the point where the reader accepts the characters’ skewed views of their daily necessities.
The result is a sad story about sad people. While there is redemption, of a small sort, there is no catharsis. The revelation of Jim’s full identity is a major plot point, and so before then, he remains too much of a cipher to elicit more than vague sympathy. And Byron, the heart of this novel, is not a tragic hero, brought low. He’s a small boy. While Joyce’s prose is seductive, reading about what happens to this vulnerable child feels like voyeurism of the worst sort, the kind of schadenfreude that not even the most careful of rituals can protect against.
Clea Simon is the author of 13 crime novels. She can be reached at email@example.com.