With the use of a prologue, Bruce throws his readers straight into the deep end: “He is a man who lied, who told a story, a wild, fanciful story, about the death of a child, a hard and unyielding story. It is that, he finds, that he hates the most. The story that was told.” The “he” here is ambiguous. This is at once bewildering and intriguing. The novel instantly has a hold over its reader. Immediately we find ourselves questioning who this man is. What this man is. We wonder what this story concerns. This suspense is maintained throughout. We are kept in doubt by the inclusion of different points of view, all convincing in their own ways, and through the mentioning of physical similarities between John and Peter, to the extent that John at times imagines his own face in the place of Peter’s, suggesting an interchangeability.
The narrative encompasses powerful feelings. The intensity of guilt is exposed through its manifestation in the form of ghosts that haunt, depriving the guilty of settling. Moreover, the paradoxical notion that absence can be felt is explored: Bruce speaks of the “full force of this nothing” and the way “the emptiness of [the house]” can be felt. He equates “All that it lacks” to “all that it is”, suggesting that a “lack” can be an “is”; an absence can be a presence.
At the same time, Bruce explores the limitations of memory. The writing is saturated with the words “perhaps” and “or” creating a sense of a guessing game. It is the dangers of such guessing that the author illuminates. He explores the relationship between memory and truth, underlining the fact that certainty does not guarantee truth: “If you examine a mystery closely enough, for long enough, certainty will follow. Certainty but not necessarily truth.” Through John’s struggle to remember things as they were, without editing them, Bruce demonstrates the way memories are altered over time: “Do I remember those words or do I think of them just because they are the obvious ones to say?” Memories fade and we have a tendency to fill in the gaps. Consequently, over time they become densely processed; “embellished”, no longer raw. There is a gap between what is true and what has been edited to the point that it comes to represent something that did not exist; a distortion. Furthermore, we tend to project our present state of mind onto less developed versions of ourselves: “Did I fling a stone at them? A detail that could be the product of my adult mind”. This too raises questions about child psychology and its accessibility to the adult mind. Is our matured state capable of accurately comprehending what the child felt, their intentions? This in turn raises the question: can we revive details once faded? A moment in time is fragile, its preservation relies on memory, yet, as Bruce demonstrates, memory is flawed and the moment is subject to the consequences of these flaws. Certain facts may be unrecoverable, locked in the moment, lost through our memory’s neglect of them.
Not only does the novel tell a story, one that fulfils the requirements of a “great” novel – suspenseful, thrilling and original – but it works on another level. The questions raised are not limited to the narrative’s boundaries but rather, they extend beyond, in the sense that they are frighteningly real, applicable to the world outside this fiction – the world we live in. Bruce explores philosophical questions. Can we rely on memory for truth? Our minds deceive us into taking distortions for facts. The novel’s hold over us is sustained beyond our reading of it as we are left in a state of deep thought, even left uncomfortable, unsettled, as we question our memory, our mind, and, ultimately, ourselves.