Harris seems to have taken a liking for this genre. Her novel, blueeyedboy, is also a story full of suspense, intrigue and treachery that holds the reader in its thrall almost till the end.
The setting of blueeyedboy is a Yorkshire village. If you thought nothing possibly could be happening in a Northern British village that could be of interest to anyone who does not have a passion for church fetes and voluntary work in the village shop of bric-a-bracs, you would be compelled to think again after reading blueeyedboy.
There are some very strange things happening in the outwardly tranquil village of Malbry (pronounced maw-bry—the reader is informed). For a start, there are rather a lot of people meeting their maker in sudden accidents. Or, are they, really? Because nothing is what it seems in this novel that has the most unreliable narrator since Toni Blair announced that Saddam’s weapons of mass destructions could strike London in 45 minutes.
The eponymous narrator of Joanne Harris’s novel is a 42-year-old single man bent on privacy and lonesome pursuits. Needless to say, he has very few friends in the real world (and, as the novel progresses, you are thankful on behalf of the rest of the humanity that this is so). Why is he called blueeyedboy? Because that is the identity he has assumed on the Internet. Blue is his colour, assigned to him when he was a child by his domineering mother. blueeyedboy keeps a web-journal, or weejay. It is, as he describes early in the novel, a ‘site for all seasonings’. You can make public entries on the site; and, for personal enjoyment, you can make restricted entries. Weejay is the only place, in a manner of speaking, where blueeyedboy can vent as he pleases, confess without fear of censure, where he can be himself, or someone else. It is a world, blueeyedboy informs the reader with some relish, where no one is quite what they seem. This anonymity is very important for blueeyedboy, who, by his own admission, is a very bad boy. He has created a weejay community called badguysrock. The name says it all; however, in case you haven’t grasped it, it is a forum for bad guys to glory in their crimes, to wear their villainy with pride, and to celebrate beyond the reach of police.
blueyedboy posts regularly on badguysrocks, and his public entries—he calls them fic, a diminutive for fiction. He also makes restricted entries. blueeyedboy’s public entries, the fics, have spawned a small community of loyal followers, which includes the obligatory psycho and a very fat and lonely woman from the USA, as well as a sad bloke from Leeds, UK, who is obsessed with big breasts and is addicted to reading pornography. These are the peripheral characters in the novel and we need not concern ourselves with them. There are two more followers, both women: one has the Internet identity of ClairDeLune while the other calls herself Albertine. And both these women live in Malbry. What are the chances of that, eh? A sad, lonely, possibly mentally unhinged, man, living in a Yorkshire village that is five miles away from civilization in every direction, starts a web-journal devoted to villainy, and in its handful of followers are two women who live in the same village. You could not find a more tightly wedged pair of coincidences. Of the two women, ClairDelune knows blueeyedboy in real life too, and is the daughter of a family friend. She teaches on a creative self-expression course in the local collage and her interest in the blueeyedboy is literature-linked (although you would be hard-placed to describe blueeyedboy’s fics as literature). She reads his fics on badguysrocks and posts comments calculated to encourage him in the same way a primary school teacher might encourage a bricolage created by a dullard in her class (but not dull enough to be shifted out of mainstream school). Albertine too posts on the weejay, but refrains from passing any comments on blueeyedboy’s entries. Finally there is JennyTricks, who posts comments on blueeyedboy’s fics of such vituperativeness that he is obliged to delete them.
The reason JennyTricks is so outraged by blueeyedboy’s fics is because of their verisimilitude to real life characters from the village, all of whom have died in circumstances more mysterious than the one surrounding the death of David Kelly. Also, they are all in some way or the other linked to blueeyedboy or his mother, Gloria Winter, so he says, and have committed the cardinal sin of insulting or offending or letting down the mother or the son in some or the other manner. If you were thinking that blueeyedboy and his mother are close, you would be wrong. True, they live in close proximity, in the same house, in fact. However, it would be fair to say that the relationship between the two is tortured. Gloria Winter, judging from descriptions provided by blueeyedboy—and we have already established that he has an unusual relationship with truth—, is a wicked-witch character straight out of books for children aged 8 to 12. The woman is more temperamental than my old banger and seems to have child rearing practices calculated to create what the counsellors call esteem issues in her children. Gloria Winter believes in the dictum that the best way to make your children obey you is to bit the shit out of them, a dictum she follows even in blueeyedboy’s adulthood. At the same time the woman is canny and is capable of low level cunning and petty subterfuge you wouldn’t usually associate with a woman who has spent the best part of her adult life cleaning houses in a Northern English village. Little surprise, then, that blueeyedboy, considers her to be about as trustworthy as a hungry python. In fact he would like her dead. He is devising a most intricate plot that would have had Hercule Poirot scratching his head (unless he remembers Curtain) to have the old biddy bumped off. And so clever and twisted is he that he is planning to implicate Albertine in his mother’s murder, killing two birds in one stone so to speak.
What has blueeyedboy got against Albertine? It all goes back to, you will not be surprised to learn, their childhoods. Albertine, the reader is informed, has grown up in the same village and has known blueeyedboy as a child. As an adult she was the girlfriend of blueeyedboy’s elder brother, Nigel. Nigel dies in a road traffic accident at the beginning of the novel, having left Albertine’s house in a rage after receiving a letter blueeyedboy claims in his fic he wrote. (Needless to say, blueeyedboy hates his brother and is not at all sorry that he is dead.) blueeyedboy is one of three brothers, but the other two have died in uncongenial circumstances. (Did I forget to mention this? I hope you will excuse me; there is so much happening in the 500 plus pages of this novel, so many twists and turns, that it is very difficult to keep track of everything that has gone on in the sad life and sordid mind of blueeyedboy.) Then there is the blind girl, Emily White, a ghost from blueeyedboy’s childhood. Blueeyedboy and Albertine are both connected to Emily. Emily’s mother, whom blueeyedboy nicknames Baby Blue (on account of her suffering from post-natal depression) in his fics, is so neurotic she makes Bridget Jones a paragon of maturity and stability in comparison. The snobbish Mrs White once employed Gloria Winter (blueeyedboy’s mother) as a cleaner and earned her lifelong enmity by dropping her for something trivial. (So, of course, she deserves to die.) Emily White and blueeyedboy are both ‘sensitive’ children. Not in the sense you and I understand sensitivity but in the sense that sends the boffins salivating to their journals. They both are gifted, or say they are gifted, with the unusual neurological condition called synaesthesia, in which stimulation of one sensory pathway involuntarily activates another sensory pathway so that the sufferers—although I am not sure that is the correct word—can taste sounds or hear colours. A local eccentric named Dr. Peacock takes great interest in blueeyedboy, only to drop him unceremoniously—thus sealing his fate—when Emily White turns up (who is doomed, too). But then is blueeyedboy really the one who he claims to be—a synaesthate—in the public entries on his weejay, or was the unusually ‘sensitive’ boy his brother whose identity blueeyeed boy has taken on in the Web-journal? And if blueeyedboy is not, at least not as a child, who he claims to be, then does he have any other special neurological condition of his own? As it happens, he does: mirror-touch-synaesthesia? How uncanny is that?
If all of this is getting a tad confusing, you wouldn’t be alone. I am getting confused myself, trying to keep track of so many characters that may or may not be linked with one another; may or may not be alive; and, if not alive, may or may not have died as a result of blueeyedboy’s machinations; and if he indeed was responsible for their deaths—and he might not be (responsible), and they might not be (dead)—it may or may not have anything to do with incidents involving blueeyedboy—who, of course may not be who he claims to be—and his mother, who may or may not be keeping tabs on our narrator including his Internet activities.
Harris knows how to spin a good yarn. The story of blueeyedboy unfolds gradually, in small fragments, with titbits of information and misinformation being drip-fed, which serve the dual function of keeping the reader engrossed (well, almost) and confusing him into the bargain. Harris does not let the pace of the narrative slacken and keeps the novel (and the reader) jollying along, administering medium voltage revelatory shocks at unpredictable intervals. However, there comes a time—and I reached it about page 200—when you are so psyched out by the twin onslaught of ghastly murders and their mutually contradictory explanations offered by blueeyedboy in his public and private journals that when you are presented with the 73rd twist on page 370, you just take a gulp and steady yourself for the next bit of revelation which you know is going to be even bigger. It is all a bit too much. Some of the twists are so fantastic that you may wonder whether they had any purpose other than shocking the reader. For example, the true identity of blueeyedboy is different from what he leads the followers of his public web-journal to believe. Yet, two of the followers—ClairDelune and Albertine—live in the same village and have known the narrator from his childhood; so they must have known who he is all along. Moreover they know him as the person who has taken on this persona, since both blueeyedboy and Albertine attend a creative writing group run by ClairDelune, where blueeyedboy blathers on about his fics. The true identity of blueeyedboy, when it is revealed roughly halfway through the novel, does shock the reader, but it does not fit neatly into the plot.
Harris has obviously taken great efforts to develop the character of blueeyedboy—the tormented and tormenting narrator, more twisted than a coat-hanger. By contrast the supporting characters—including Albertine and Gloria Winter who are pivotal to the story—strike as two dimensional, their motives abstruse. Despite the reams of pages devoted to them, their inner lives simply do not light up. Albertine’s relationship with Nigel, blueeyedboy’s elder brother, is one of the many weak elements of the story. The subplots involving Emily White and the neurological conditions, while interesting in themselves, are appendages which add to the bulkiness of the novel but little else. Perhaps they could have been subjects of another novel.
Harris’s prose is deceptively simple, yet it has the power of sucking the reader in with its gentle, balanced rhythm that is, for most part, enticing. Occasionally, though, it becomes a bit syrupy and cloying. As blueeyedboy releases yet another entry into the ether of the Internet, describing the colour scheme (various shades of blue) into which he has neatly divided his victims, or the taste and smell sensations evoked by colour words, the reader can be excused for resignedly thinking, here he goes again. If the purpose was to give the reader a first-hand experience of the sensory overload to which blueeyedboy is routinely subjected, Harris has done it brilliantly.
Blueeyedboy may be a (long, at times ponderous, non-linear) cautionary tale of how it is easy to lose the boundaries between the real and the fiction, to fade out your personal identity and take on an online persona on the Internet. It may be a tale of damaged childhoods casting their shadows into adulthoods. It may be a convoluted tale of murders. It may be a tale woven round exotic neurological conditions called synaesthesia and mirror-touch synaesthesia that (sans the murders) wouldn’t be out of place in an Oliver Sachs book. Finally, as Harris said in an interview, it may be a black comedy.
That is a problem with the novel: it tries to cram in too many themes and ends up being too clever by half.