The Boy on The Bus by Deborah Schupack

[8 July 2003]

By Sarah Tan

Learning to Listen to Yourself

“I do care what other people are saying, but not because I care what they think. It’s just that sometimes what other people say shows a truth you cannot see yourself. Because you’re always too close to your own life.”

Charlie Landry is an eight-year-old boy who takes the bus to school. He gets picked up at his front door in the morning and dropped off at the same spot in the afternoon. There’s nothing particularly special about this routine. Parents all over the world bear witness to the swinging doors and rows of plastic covered two-seaters. School buses whisk children away from their homes, and parents expect these bright yellow capsules to bring them home later in the day.

But what happens when the child who returns home, doesn’t resemble the child who left?

The Boy on the Bus is Deborah Schupack’s debut novel, and tells of a small town homemaker, named Meg Landry, who is one day confronted with the fact that her son, Charlie, has changed dramatically. From an asthmatic weakling who has enshrined his mother, along with his nebulizer, a pitcher of water and a ‘panic’ button by the side of his bed, Charlie Landry has transformed into a boisterous young boy in the time period of eight school hours. “He looked so much like Charlie. Under normal circumstances, it would be their similarities that were remarkable. Now, of course, it was their differences.

Meg Landry is confused with this change and is victim to that niggling feeling that this may not be her son, but rather, an impostor of some sort. He looks like Charlie, but doesn’t act like him. The new Charlie Landry is an adventurous child with a ferocious appetite, who entertains himself by transforming his asthma paraphernalia in ‘festive disguise’ using balloons and other odds and ends he finds in his room. Meg becomes nervous with this ‘stranger’ in the house, and calls her husband Jeff and her daughter Katie to return home to provide reassurance that the boy who got off the bus is really her son. However, this attempt fails, and everyone leaves Meg with the belief that ‘mother knows best’—but does she?

In The Boy on the Bus, Schupack has crafted a novel that explores the problems and effects of loneliness. She carefully delves into the fragile and complex threads of emotions that weave between each other, resulting in coping strategies that form mental and emotional barricades. She reveals how emotional need can lead to denial, anger and isolation. This is a visible element in every character in The Boy on the Bus. Jeff takes his pain to another city, Katie escapes to boarding school because “There’s never anything to do at home unless you’re you and all you want to do is take care of the sick kid all the time.” Even the neighbours seem to claw at the boundary of their yards, craving for intimacy and yet afraid to move any closer.

The feeling of isolation is so deeply embedded in the setting and characters of the novel that you finish the book with a strong sense of empathy. Schupack accomplishes this through two ways—with descriptions of individual characters and through vividly painting landscape. The descriptions of the setting are so subtle and accurate, that the reader feels the claustrophobia that exists in the wooded outskirts of Birchwood, Vermont. Deer crossings, off beat roads, and petty, gossiping neighbours who spend their time looking out of windows into other people’s backyards come together to create a picture of captured anxiety.

Schupack’s writes in a style that belongs to some of America’s best contemporary writers. The strength of her psychological thriller lies in her frugal, yet powerful, construction of sentences. They have a jaunty, almost nervous value, and she never gives too much away. The Boy on the Bus is so engrossing that by the time you get to the middle of the book, you find yourself thinking like Charlie’s mother, looking for clues in his behaviour so you could be sure of his identity.

“Remember when I was little?” he asked. “You used to say all the time, “You’re a goose, a silly goose.” Remember that?
She did not remember. It was something she could have said. It was something any mother could have said. But she did not remember.

Reading Schupack makes us recognise things we have said, things we have wanted to say, and things we want to do and could have done. The plot of the novel is deceptively simple, and the events that surround it are familiar enough for anyone to recognize, therefore contributing to the disturbing effect of the novel. It is this inability for the reader to keep himself or herself at a distance from the text that makes The Boy on the Bus an excellent thriller that eerily leaves you in a state of questioning yourself -– do you know those you love?

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