Hi Kids! As usual, this is a non-spoiler review.
There’s a good reason that this book won the British Fantasy Award (2009).
Daniel is ten years old when his mother dies. She dies young, and with so much left to give. He does not understand. He cannot let her go.
After the funeral, his father begins talking to a large wooden box that he keeps beneath his bed. And when Daniel whispers to the box one day when his father goes out … it answers back.
It’s a voice he does not know. But this voice knows so much.
I read a lot of books that I like, fewer that I love, and very rarely do I stumble upon one that affects me for a long time after I’ve put it down. Pet Semetary hit me hard, The Yellow Wallpaper (Charlotte Perkins-Gilman) still comes to mind frequently, and now there’s also The Reach of Children.
This is, hooves down, the most sincere story of grief that I’ve ever read. I found it so deeply moving that thinking about it still evokes that chest tightness that usually precedes crying. I did shed a tear reading it.
In the foreword, Michael Marshall Smith writes, “…and in The Reach of Children Lebbon has written one of the best and most emotionally convincing stories about death that I have ever read. It is not, however, remotely depressing, or morbid. This should come as no surprise – because anything good that’s written about death is also, of course, about life.”
I could not agree with the latter part of this statement more, though I personally did find elements of the story depressing. It was the way Daniel’s father struggled after the death of his wife – that’s what hit me. I’ve been fortunate enough to never lose a partner, but in my mid-twenties I did – quite unexpectedly – lose my best friend. I’m someone who, even when I was battling through my own extreme medical issues several years back, try to put on a happy face, because I don’t want anyone that cares about me to worry. I’ve lied through my teeth plenty of times when I most certainly have not been okay, lest I burden others with the obligation of trying to help me get back to an okay place. Like Daniel’s father in this story, when I lost someone absolutely precious to me, I couldn’t pretend. I just shut down, and rather than have to be anything around other people, I found that I preferred to isolate myself. The idea of not only losing the love of my life, but then suddenly having to take care of our child alone is inconceivable to me, and brings a lump to my throat. The way his grief was depicted in this story, the way he just couldn’t, not even for the sake of his kid, really hit me hard. With every page I turned, I was deeply afraid that his depression would push him over the edge, that poor Daniel would lose both parents. It was so honest, it was devastating.
But it was also real, and beautiful, and somehow hopeful.
I was impressed by the way Daniel was written – the nuances of ten year-olds and the way they think is incredibly difficult to capture when you’re an adult. Not to bleat on about King, but again, it’s King’s coming-of-age novels (The Body, IT) that spring to mind whenever I’m discussing great examples of realistic child characters. And now, there is also The Reach of Children. There was a line in there somewhere about finding a “good stick”, and suddenly, years of my own childhood came flooding back. I’d completely forgotten about being outside playing, coming across a good stick, and carrying it around for the rest of the day, proudly. I can’t quite remember what makes a stick good, but I do remember the excitment of finding one.
Themes aside, the horror aspects of this story worked for me too. It’s quiet, creepy, and eerie. It’s by no means startling or gory – it’s not that type of horror. I found myself getting anxious (kind of like I get when I’m reading Adam Nevill’s books). I didn’t trust what was happening, had no idea where things were going, and was always afraid for Daniel.
The title and Lebbon’s afterword got me thinking about the concept of keeping things out of the reach of children – or rather, the way we try to. Sharp objects, fire, medication, even natural human emotions and experiences like death and grief – these are all things we try to shield children from. We even try to keep the truth out of their reach sometimes. ‘I’ll tell you when you’re older’ and ‘it’s a grown-up thing’ were both responses I heard countless times as a kid, and I hated it. I found it insulting that I shouldn’t be trusted enough or considered mature enough for answers, and infuriating that my questions had to just hang in the air, potentially for years. All of this is discussed in various ways in the narrative.
The Reach of Children is truly a powerful, personal, and though-provoking novella, and I love it. If you like your horror loud and nasty, this won’t do it for you. I’d recommend it to people looking for an empathetic experience, with a side of spooky mystique and dread. It’s a beautiful piece of work.
If you’d like your own copy, you can find it here:
If you’d like to look up the author (you should), you can find him here:
Leave a Reply