The Washington Post
The River House: A Novelby Margaret Leroy
- The novel's story line revolves around a single moment that threatens to unravel a woman's entire life and will appeal to readers of Jane Hamilton, Sue Miller and Ann Packet.- "Postcards from Berlin, Leroy's previous novel, was a "New York Times Notable Book of the Year and is being developed by the BBC into a television drama.See more details below
- The novel's story line revolves around a single moment that threatens to unravel a woman's entire life and will appeal to readers of Jane Hamilton, Sue Miller and Ann Packet.- "Postcards from Berlin, Leroy's previous novel, was a "New York Times Notable Book of the Year and is being developed by the BBC into a television drama.
The Washington Post
- Little, Brown and Company
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The River House
By Margaret Leroy
Little, BrownCopyright © 2005 Margaret Leroy
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHE'S BUILDING A WALL FROM LEGO. There's no sound but the click as he slots the bricks together and his rapid, fluttery breathing. His face is white as wax. I know he's very afraid.
"You're building something," I say.
He doesn't respond.
He's seven, small for his age, like a little pot-bound plant. Blond hair and skin so pale you'd think the sun could hurt him, and wrists as thin as twigs. A freckled nose that would wrinkle if he smiled-but I've yet to see a smile.
I kneel on the floor, to one side of him so as not to be intrusive. His fear infects me; the palms of my hands are clammy.
"Kyle, I'm wondering what kind of room you're building. I don't think it's a playroom, like this one."
"It's the bedroom," he says. Impatient, as though this should be obvious.
"Yes. You're building the bedroom."
His building is complete now-four walls, no door.
It's a warm October afternoon, syrupy sunlight falling over everything. My consulting room seems welcoming in the lavish light, vivid with the primary colors of toys and paints and Play-Doh, and the animal puppets that children will use to speak for them, that will sometimes free them to say astonishing things. The walls are covered with drawings that children have given me, though there's nothing of my own life here-no traces of my family, of Greg or my daughters, no Christmas or holiday photos; for the children who come here, I want to be theirs alone for the time that they're with me. The mellow light falls across Kyle's face, but it doesn't brighten his pallor.
He digs around in the Lego box, looking for something. I don't reach out to help him; I don't want to distract him from his inner world. His movements are narrow, restricted; he will never reach out or make an expansive gesture. Even when he's drawing, he confines himself to a corner of the page. Once I said, Could you do me a picture to fill up all this space? He drew the tiniest figures in the margin, his fingers scarcely moving.
He finds the people in the box. A boy and an adult that could be a man or a woman: just the same as last time.
"The people are going into your building. I'm wondering what they're doing there."
He's grasping the figures so tightly you can see his bones white through his skin.
I feel a slight chill as a shadow passes across us. Instinctively, I turn-thinking I might see someone behind me, peering in at the window. But of course there's nothing there-just a wind that stirs the leaves of the elms that grow at the edge of the car park.
There's a checklist in my mind: violence, or sex abuse, or something he has seen-because I have learned from years of working with these troubled children that it's not just about what is done to you, that what is seen also hurts you. I know so little. His foster parents say he's very withdrawn. His mother could have helped me, but she's on a psychiatric ward, profoundly depressed, not well enough to be talked to. The school staff were certainly worried. "He seems so scared," said the teacher who referred him to the clinic. "Of anything in particular?" I asked. "Swimming lessons, story time, male teachers?" She had riotous, nut-brown hair, and her eyes were puzzled. I liked her. She frowned and fiddled with her hair. "Not really. Just afraid."
"Perhaps a bad thing happened in the bedroom," I say now, very gently. "Perhaps the boy is unhappy because a bad thing happened."
Noises from outside scratch at the stillness: the slam of a door in the car park, the harsh cries of rooks in the elms. He clicks the figures into place. The sounds are clear in the quiet.
"You can talk about anything here," I tell him. "Even bad things, Kyle. No one will tell you off, whatever you say. Sometimes children think that what happened was their fault, but no one will think that here."
He doesn't respond. Nothing I say makes sense to him. Yet I know this must be significant, this room with the child and the adult, over and over. And no way out, no door.
Perhaps this is the detail that matters. I sit there, thinking of doors. Of going through into new, expectant spaces: of that image I love from Alice in Wonderland, the narrow door at the end of the hall that leads to the rose garden. Maybe he needs to experience here in the safety of my playroom the opening of that door. I feel a surge of hope. Briefly, I thrill to my imagery of liberation, of walking out of prison.
"Perhaps the boy feels trapped." I keep my voice very casual. "Like there's no way out for him. But there is a way. He doesn't know it yet, but there is a way out of the room for him. He could build a door and open it. All that he has to do is to open the door...."
He turns so his back is toward me, just a slight movement, but definite. He rips a few bricks from his building and dumps them back in the box, as if he's throwing rubbish away. His face is blank. He stands by the sandpit and digs in the sand with his fingers and lets the grains fall through his hands. When I speak to him now, he doesn't seem to hear.
After Kyle has gone, I stand there for a moment, looking into the empty space outside my window, needing a moment of quiet to try to make sense of the session. I watch as Peter, my boss, the consultant in charge of the clinic, struggles to back his substantial BMW into rather too small a space. The roots of the elms have pushed to the surface and spread across the car park; the tarmac is cracked and uneven.
The things that have to be done tonight pass rapidly through my mind. Something for dinner. The graduates' art exhibition at Molly's old school. Soy milk for Greg and buckwheat flour for his bread. Has Amber finished her Graphics course work? Fix up a drink with Eva.... A little wind shivers the tops of the elms; a single bright leaf falls. I can still feel Kyle's fear: He's left something of it behind him, as people may leave the smell of their cigarettes or scent.
I sit at my desk and flick through his file, looking for anything that might help, a way of understanding him. A sense of futility moves through me. I wonder when this happened-when my certainty that I could help these children started to seep away.
I have half an hour before my next appointment. I take the file from my desk and go out into the corridor.
Excerpted from The River House by Margaret Leroy Copyright © 2005 by Margaret Leroy. Excerpted by permission.
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