Jean Caleb is in the doghouse. In every sense. His loving adoptive mother, Melanie, is away from home, and JC has no idea when she’ll be back. In her absence, her increasingly deranged partner locks JC up inside a kennel, along with the family dog, Boy. Their captor feeds and waters them when the mood takes him. They are at the mercy of a crazed, violent man.
With no-one else for comfort or company, JC begins an inevitably one-sided conversation with Boy which lasts throughout the novel. JC’s life story emerges in fragments, beginning in Riverbed, his village home in what feels like Haiti (the poverty, an earthquake). He and his brother are deftly kidnapped by travelling traders who separate the two, depositing JC in The Sweet Angelic Orphanage, a front for the sale of stolen children as slave labour on farms or, if they are luckier, to wealthy Americans looking to adopt. JC avoids slavery only because farmers don’t want a weak kid covered in infectious spots; he’s dumped in a hospital (for years) until one day the earth explodes, and the building sighs and groans and folds inwards on itself and its patients. Earthquake. Cholera. No safety nets here. That is JC’s terrifying start to life.
The arrival of Melanie, a foreign aid doctor working in the aftermath of the disaster must surely be a turning point for him; she is determined to take him back to a family life with her and her partner in the States. Getting him out of the country and through immigration involves time and risk, though here and there he meets with kindness along the way. When he makes it to the US, JC finds he is to share his new home with Boy, himself a refugee from cruelty; and also, it turns out, with the pervasive memory of Jake, the son of Melanie and her partner. Jake’s been killed in a head-on car-crash caused by his father; each day, he is achingly missed by his parents. There is no way JC is going to replace Jake – his bedroom is a shrine; Jake’s father will never forgive JC for not being Jake and each day his resentment colours all his dealings with JC. When Melanie leaves for JC’s homeland to sort out his legal adoption, searching first for his birth family, she will have to be away for as long as it takes. In her absence, JC and Boy have no defence against the sadism of JC’s adoptive father culminating in their imprisonment within the dog pen in the yard, and then confinement inside the doghouse itself.
The story makes dark but compelling reading, heightened by the naive incomprehension of JC’s narrative. There’s relief at times in the relationship between boy and Boy, though almost inevitably interest in the one-sided narrative slackens at times over the 346 pages. Despite his limited education (and what seems to be his dyslexia), JC is sometimes given a surprisingly literary turn of phrase, especially as the assumption is that we’re listening in to his spoken words: ‘laughing as his anger blew dust in their faces…’, ‘wood that had been shaken loose by the angry ground and thrown into toppling piles’. What will retain the interest of readers able to surrender to the unique narrative structure will not only be the relationship of JC and Boy, but the slowly revealed pain and consequent madness of the bereaved father contrasted with the courage of Melanie, struggling to fill her own void through love rather than hatred. We’re asked to believe these two adults once loved each other – occasionally we’re told they did – but it’s hard to glimpse any vestige or likelihood of that love here. This might stretch young readers’ credulity; though others could decide that the loss of a child, especially when one of the adults is guilty of the death, could well produce such an abyss.