The Boy at the Keyhole: atmospheric writing that will mess with your head

The Boy at the keyhole book review

What is this about?: Samuel is a young boy missing his mother desperately. He lives with his housekeeper, Ruth, who he begins to suspect did something to his mother.

What else is this about?: This is a slow burn of a book, that begins to grow ever more claustrophobic as Samuel begins to investigate what happened to his mother — in other words — nope, there’s not much else here.


An electrifying debut in the vein of Shirley Jackson and Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, about a British boy who, after his mother is abruptly called away to America, begins to suspect that perhaps she did not leave, but was murdered—by the housekeeper who cares for him in the family’s isolated country estate.

Nine-year-old Samuel lives alone in a once great estate in Surrey with the family’s housekeeper, Ruth. His father is dead and his mother has been abroad for five months, purportedly tending to her late husband’s faltering business. She left in a hurry one night while Samuel was sleeping and did not say goodbye.

Beyond her sporadic postcards, Samuel hears nothing from his mother. He misses her dearly and maps her journey in an atlas he finds in her study. Samuel’s life is otherwise regulated by Ruth, who runs the house with an iron fist. Only she and Samuel know how brutally she enforces order.

As rumors in town begin to swirl, Samuel wonders whether something more sinister is afoot. Perhaps his mother did not leave, but was murdered—by Ruth.

Channeling the masterful suspense of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca and the haunting, claustrophobic atmosphere of the works of Shirley Jackson, The Boy at the Keyhole is an electrifying debut about the precarious dance between truth and perception, and the shocking acts that occur amid tightly knit quarters.

The Boy at the Keyhole  is set in 1961, with Samuel left behind in his family’s estate with their housekeeper Ruth. His father has passed away, and his mother is overseas trying to find loans and business partners to save his father’s business. Samuel however just wants his mother home, and longs every day to hear from her, or to call her. But all he has for his answers are from Ruth, an aloof woman, but also a woman who is running a house on money that is dwindling fast.

In essence this book is about them.

Imagine a lonely estate, and these two characters roaming the halls, neither one particularly liking the other, but needing to put up with each other – that about sums up Ruth and Samuel. Then Samuel’s school friend says enough, like all children do, that Samuel begins to question Ruth, her answers about his mother and eventually begins to distrust her.

So begins a cat-and-mouse game between Ruth and Samuel as he tries to find the answers he so desperately seeks, and Ruth, well, yeah, she certainly is keeping something from him.

The book is an easy read, but that doesn’t mean that it is not richly evocative writing of a lonely house, and these two characters.

What I enjoyed most about it was that as Samuel progressed in his search for the truth, the author has managed to walk this fine line of truth and lies so that even as I was convinced that Samuel was right, and that Ruth did do something to his mother, in the next chapter, Ruth has reasonable explanations for everything, and there must be something wrong with Samuel.

It helps too that their relationship is antagonistic in some ways with no love lost between them. They’re thrown together by circumstances.

The Boy at the Keyhole is a subtly creepy book, with the author expertly playing with perceptions as the narrative progresses until you don’t know who to believe, and the truth is nothing that you’d expect.


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