A Good and Happy Child
by Justin Evans
Reviewed by Danielle Marshall
Rare is it that I pick up a mystery or thriller and come away feeling that I have just enjoyed an eight-course gourmet meal. As much as I'm a fan of popular fiction, often those books seem more like drive-thru fast-food meals. Quick, at times yummy, but not as soul satisfying as a carefully prepared meal by a master chef. Justin Evans's outstanding debut novel A Good and Happy Child stunned and surprised me -- it's a thriller that has all the meat on the tenderly braised bone that I could ever hope for and made me hungry for more.
A Good and Happy Child alternates between George Davies's troubled childhood, in a small college town in Virginia after his father's premature death, and his tormented adult life as a new father in New York City. George has a morbid fear of picking up his newborn son and that terror sends him to a psychiatrist. The doctor digs up memories from George's difficult childhood -- when his "visions" began.
Having been raised by college professors, 11-year-old George was an intelligent, somewhat detached child, with many possible reasons for his troubling behavior: he was bullied at school; his father had recently died; his mother began dating soon after; and he saw a long-time family friend, Tom Harris, as a threat. Bouts of insomnia, punctuated by visits from an "imaginary friend" fueled George's decent into paranoia and madness. But was this friend really the inception of a mental illness or perhaps an old-fashioned demonic possession? Questions abounded, and none of the adults around him believed his tales about his new companion.
George began to follow clues revealed to him in his dreams by his friend, a scruffy boy that reminded him of Huck Finn, with straw-like hair and a dirty face. These clues pointed to a larger, more sinister reason for his father's death, always thought to be a horrible illness caught while doing disaster relief work in Honduras.
"It's about your father," said my Friend.
"All of this....Somebody knows what happened to your father!"
I recoiled from the outburst. But the face kept coming nearer....
"Somebody knows, somebody wanted it!"
The smudged face of George's friend tormented him and pointed the finger at Tom Harris, leading young George to his first act of violence, cutting the brake lines on Tom's car, and landing him in a psychiatric hospital for children. There the real drama began as George battled being drugged and patronized by the adults around him, all while dealing with the uncertainty of what happened to his father. No stone is left unturned; George is even subjected to a traditional exorcism.
As these long-buried memories are examined in his New York therapist's office, many of George's secrets are revealed, but George knows that the psychiatrist doesn’t believe the demonic cause for his behavior.
Now I understood what you were asking. All I had to do was confess that the demons weren't real, that I had manipulated the grown-ups, done all the deeds myself; and then renounce any religious claim to the overarching, defining force in all this. I believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, I began reciting, mischievously, in my head. But I knew: that wouldn't go over in here. In the presence of your enlightened, sympathetic prying, even I wanted badly to surrender my faith and my memories; just release; let go; say to myself, it was all a dream...
Justin Evans fills his page-turning story with beautifully descriptive passages, fully-realized characters, and restrained moments of ghastliness. Part thriller and part horror novel, this is among the best of its genre: shelves populated with the likes of Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, and books by Joe Hill. A Good and Happy Child is a masterpiece of suspense and subtlety, full of psychological depth and theological examination.