I've called S.J. Bolton the Queen before and I proclaim it again: Bolton rules the world of psychological thrillers. She presents the evidence, year after year, of just how twisted the wires of the human psyche are. No matter our outward appearance, inside we harbor moral imperatives that often conflict with our desires and make bolder our fears.
In Lost, her latest magnificent novel, Bolton's unforgettable characters (and thankfully, she has brought back some of my favorites) are ordinary people living complicated lives. Before our reading eyes, those characters become entangled in situations (both of their own making and not) that force them to confront the conflicting voices in their heads - and bring them to the edge of an abyss. Will they fall in, becoming forever lost, or will they find their way back to sanity and safety?
A character doesn't have to be a grown-up to be brought to the edge of hell - Bolton has never shied from bringing kids into her stories, and her children are deeply layered, and very real. So real that while reading Lost I wanted to reach into the book and pull one or two out, to give them the hug and the cup of cocoa they so clearly needed. But it will take more than hugs or cocoa to save the children or adults of Lost - it will take a combination of utter bravery, risky foolery, and all-out determination to rescue what can be rescued and mourn what must remain forever lost (and innocence is just the start).
Bolton doesn't dish up chills and thrills for the hell of it, or just to get a rise out of us. She uses every curve of her plot to make a deeper incision (figuratively) into the characters, allowing us painfully sharp insights into what makes them tick and what it would take to make them break down, utterly and completely. Not only do we have the bogeyman of the hour to fear (in this case, a killer stalking young boys and leaving them dead on the banks of the Thames when he has done with them - and I will not reveal what it is he has done with them - or is the killer a she?) but we also fear for our characters themselves, their sanity and their future. We know they will not all end up dead but are there worse things than death? Maybe. How about a life mired in fear or remorse or doubt?
Police Detective Lacey Flint, for example, was left shattered by the case in Bolton's last book, Dead Scared. She has been given an extended leave of absence and things are not going well for her. The man who could help her most, Mark Joesbury, she keeps at more than arms' length, while the ghosts who can do her the most harm, she entertains on a nightly basis. It takes the arrival of murder on her doorstep - or close to it, on the riverbanks just down the road - to bring Flint lurching back into detective mode, but only because she fears for a young neighbor. Barney Roberts is left on his own a lot, his mother gone and his father often off on mysterious assignments.
Lost is about many things, including fear, despair, and empathy, but for me it is most hauntingly about the human need to feel protected and anchored under another's care. For children, such guardianship is imperative for survival. When parents fall short of the caretaking required, self-appointed guardians, both well-intentioned and not, may step in to do what they can. Lacey Flint becomes Barney's secret guardian; Mark Joesbury is secretly looking after Flint; and Barney is looking out for his friends, lost boys like him.