The 10-year-old who narrates this novel by Paul Pen (and translated from Spanish by Simon Bruni) has lived in the basement his whole life, never leaving. With him are his mother and father, his grandmother, and his brother and sister. The whole family, except for the boy, was badly burned in the world “up there.” His sister’s burns were so bad that, on her father’s orders, she wears a mask to protect the family from seeing her noseless face.
In this closed environment, the family has developed routines — reading books, watching movies, pedaling on the exercise bike. The boy frets about the “Cricket Man” who might come and take him away. The whole family prays to “The One Up There” who provides for their needs. The boy basks in the tiny spot of sun that when he can and is obsessed with insects, especially the fireflies that have made their way into the basement.
Shortly after the book begins, things change when the boy’s sister gives birth to a baby boy. The baby brings a new source of stress to the family, and the boy starts hearing unsettling conversations. And then the secrets begin being revealed.
This is a very dark story. Do the math about the baby and you’ll start to get a sense of realize how dark it gets. And the incest is only a small piece of it. Yet the boy can’t bring himself to see his situation as wrong. He sees what he wants to see and keeps himself from seeing certain realities that his family has trained him not to see.
I don’t generally mind a dark story, and, for the most part, I didn’t mind this, mostly because I was so curious as to what was actually going on. I had lots of theories, but none of them were even close. The answer is very clever and even explains some niggling points that bothered me but that I didn’t see as clues to what was happening.
It’s all very gripping, and I was fascinated by the idea of a child growing up in this alternate reality and coming to terms with the truth. It’s an extreme version of something everyone must go through, when they discover that their parents don’t have all the answers and sometimes make serious mistakes.
And then the book takes a few more turns that seem to wipe away some of the horrors that went before. I just couldn’t stomach that. I can see that the characters were put in an impossible position, but almost all the blame goes in one direction when it should be much more complicated than that. One of the characters is treated like a full-on villain in every way, when there was room for layers, for the character to be villain and victim. That was a disappointment, but I didn’t ruin my experience of the book entirely, especially because the very end worked really well. So, on the whole, a pretty good book, but a difficult one to recommend.