Translated from French by Nora Mahony
Grand Central Publishing, 288 pages, c2011, translation c2013
Such is the state of publishing these days that this book is currently available in ebook format (e.g., Kobo through Powell’s Books), $9.99, but won’t be available in print until July, 2014, $15.
Sophie Loubière entices her readers with an is-she-or-isn’t-she story. Loubière’s main character, Elsa Préau, may be able to see ghosts. She may be crazy. She may suffer from dementia. Or not.
Loubière introduces Elsa in a pre-story that takes us from 1946 to 1997 before settling into a present day story. Gérard is infatuated with Elsa. “The touch of madness was irresistible,” he thinks. They have a son, Martin. Gérard, a physician, eventually leaves Elsa to move from France to Canada. When Martin also seeks a medical career, he moves to Canada as well. Meanwhile, Elsa has carved a career for herself as the headmistress of a school. Although she has a busy life, she pines for Martin. She is appalled when he returns to France with a wife, Audrette, but all is forgiven when their son, Bastien, is born. He is the light of Elsa’s life. The pre-story ends with an ambiguous scene in which Elsa, although forbidden to see Bastien at that point, takes her grandson after school for a picnic in the park. Elsa and Bastien are soon unconscious. What has happened?
When the main story begins in the present day, Martin is helping Elsa return to her childhood home, long disused and vandalized. Most of the book follows Elsa’s clear but tortured thinking.
Soon Elsa becomes concerned about a pale and dirty boy she sees in the neighbor’s yard, but only on Sundays. She senses something is wrong with him and discovers that officially he doesn’t exist. He reminds her of her grandson. At the same time she has disturbing dreams and hears unexplained sounds at night.
Martin often asks Elsa if she is taking her medication. He says, “‘Now that I would have liked — a mum out of a mold, just like other mums, one who doesn’t talk to ghosts.’”
So where is this book heading?
Loubière establishes that Elsa, as a youngster, claims to have seen her dead mother. Gérard finds her quite fey. On the other hand, she has the makings of an eccentric and brilliant detective. She has, after all, infiltrated her old school to find out whether the current headmistress knows anything about “the stone boy,” as Elsa has taken to calling him. We learn then that Elsa had a great reputation for innovation at the school.
Elsa often writes to government officials, suggesting remedies to social problems. She reads articles about potential environmental and technological dangers. She even has written to a neighbor to address her hoarding and hygiene issues. Elsa cares. But everything she does and believes is slightly off and slightly wacky.
Loubière does a tremendous job pushing Elsa more and more off kilter, while making us wonder just what kernel of truth may lie in the midst of her madness.
The author has created a suspenseful, haunting, crafty tale of psychological disintegration in The Stone Boy.