Were teenagers in 1999 more composed, kind, contemplative, and devoted to family? That is, before computers, phones, and social media became all-encompassing fixtures for teens? One of my daughters was thirteen in 1999, the same age as Duncan, the youngest of the three teen-aged siblings in Margot Livesey’s The Boy in the Field, and I’ve been trying to recall whether she had a similarly rich interior life.
Duncan is obsessed with art and artists; my daughter was fascinated by history and read compulsively. But she also was interested in pop music, spent too much time watching TV, wanted to see movies that (I thought) were too mature for her. Perhaps teens growing up in a town outside Oxford, England at the end of the previous century were more serious-minded, less superficial, than their American counterparts.
Or perhaps Livesey claims a writer’s privilege to overlook some aspects of her characters’ lives (the trivial parts) in order to imagine their deeper, more nuanced reactions to finding a grievously injured young man on their way home from school one afternoon and “keeping vigil” with him until an ambulance arrives.
They half-walked, half-ran, the rest of the way home. Something enormous had happened. They hurried past the sign for their town, the primary school they had each attended, the church, the pub, and the corner shop, past the houses of their neighbors, past the blowsy yellow and white roses in their front garden and through their blue front door.
Acknowledging that teens have complex, insightful interior lives is essential to appreciating The Boy in the Field. And perhaps instead of thinking about my daughter’s interior life, I should be looking back (far back) to my own: as a thirteen-year old, an almost sixteen-year old, an eighteen-year old. No doubt, there were many shallow moments. But if anyone had been able to probe my thoughts, they would have found more profound speculations and perceptions, too.
This is a long way ’round to saying that I loved this novel: its characters, setting, language, and themes of self-discovery and understanding that everyone else has a self, too.
Each chapter, apart from an introductory and two closing sections, is narrated from the point of view of one of the Lang teenagers: Matthew, Zoe, or Duncan, who, we learn, is adopted. (“He was so used to the hastily concealed double take most people did on meeting him—his dark skin, his dark eyes—that he barely noticed it…”)
An early Duncan chapter begins:
During his brief period as a Boy Scout, he learned that the compass has thirty-two points. Now he could say with confidence that each person in his family was heading toward a different one. Matthew was spending hours with Rachel, who was pretty and principled, but not kind. Zoe was searching for something; she didn’t seem to know what, or whom. His father was nicer when he was around, but he was around less. His mother, between her cases and her ancient Greek, was always busy. Several afternoons a week he opened the door and entered an empty house. By mid-October he couldn’t bear it.
The chapters encompass the other siblings, their mother and father, the injured boy and his family, the search for his assailant, the search for Duncan’s “first mother,” the complications of young love and not-so-young love—not to mention a new dog, part-time jobs, schoolwork, hobbies, and planning for a community New Year’s Eve celebration (“the Salon of Second Chances”) that will also mark the millennium.
I could have spent more time with this family, but Livesey wisely knows when to draw the curtain, and when to open it once more, briefly, in her satisfying final chapter: “Here is what happened eight and a half years later…”