Last year, "The Lovely Bones" made us consider the horror of losing a child. This year, "The Boy on the Bus" will make us confront the terror of keeping one.
Where Alice Sebold's bestselling novel moved through the cycles of grief that few parents will ever have to endure, Deborah Schupack's slim debut gives voice to those common anxieties that most parents would never dare speak.
The plot is reduced to a single surreal crisis: When Meg Landry's 8-year-old son, Charlie, returns home after school on Good Friday, she doesn't think it's really him.
"He sounded like Charlie," the narrator says, "but a mother's mind can play tricks." Like a character in a dream, Meg goes onto the bus and stares at this almost familiar boy. The driver, a friend she's been flirting with for months, encourages her to take her son away. Neighbors collect outside hoping for scandal.
Of course, she can't bring herself to ask any of them the shocking question, "Is this really my son?" A mother should know. And besides, as far as she can tell, all of them seem to think he is. Touching his shoulder, she thinks, "his live weight felt so similar to Charlie's, as if the mass of her son were all here, just shuffled around some."
Not since gripping the pages of Henry James's classic "Turn of the Screw" have I been so unsettled by a story about caring for children.
At this remote house in Vermont, on Easter weekend, Schupack drifts through the twilight that separates deviancy from perfectly normal behavior, straining to focus on the dark emotions that take place between domestic ideals and family disintegration. It's dangerous terrain any parent will recognize, but despite the discomfort, there's something oddly reassuring about traversing it under Schupack's wise guidance.
Meg and this Charlie-like boy finally walk into the house, but not before the county sheriff arrives to let her know that the state is watching, ready to help if asked - or take custody if necessary. Then, a neighbor, the perfect mother, walks over with a cake eager to trade it for tidbits of misfortune. And finally, the boy's father, Jeff, arrives from Canada - heroically driving all night - eager to fix whatever little problem they might be having.
But this family's problems aren't something to fix; they're something to embrace. Meg and Jeff have responded very differently to the challenge of raising their severely asthmatic son and surly teenage daughter. Jeff pursues longer and more distant jobs, abandoning his children in practice while remaining the loyal breadwinner in theory. Meg, meanwhile, is left to discipline their daughter and keep Charlie breathing. "She suddenly feels like poor God on the seventh day, bereft of and betrayed by what she's wrought."
Night after night of fearful listening to her son has brought her to the edge of that forbidden thought, that exhausted, shameful wish that love can quell but not eliminate. Who can she tell about the times she's wandered out of the house in the dark and wished her son were someone else?
And yet how frightening it is - to her and us - when he seems to be someone else. What's particularly brilliant about this story is the way Schupack captures parental anxiety traveling in both directions at once. Meg is as horrified by her desire for Charlie to be different as she is by the thought that he has become different.
"Imagine, she thought, children as approximations. Then again, in a sense they were. Each time your child returned home, he was an approximation of who you had sent out into the world that morning. And each morning, he was an approximation of who you'd tried to seal with a kiss the night before."
Like millions of single mothers, Meg is expected to calculate those approximations - or at least fudge them - without complaint. Schupack provides a particularly devastating portrayal of the social supports intended to help Meg, but which in practice offer only veiled threats or condescending advice.
The friendly sheriff demands a tense performance of the ideal family so that he can file his report and move on to missing car radios and acts of vandalism. The doctor blithely assures Meg that if she would only exercise the perfect balance of discipline, love, nutrition, and medicine, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, without a moment's respite, her son would be fine. Listening to this well-meaning profession, "Meg envied the doctor, unburdened as he was by fear, love, guilt, exhaustion, need."
Meg's peculiar situation resonates with deep, universal tones in this carefully constructed novel. Schupack has wisely kept her story short and avoided any easy resolutions, but her cool, poetic voice offers a steady flow of startling observations about marriage and parenthood - and those most temporary beings of all: children. From a debut this daring should rise a career of penetrating novels.
• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments about the book section to email@example.com.