In his début novel, Brian DeLeeuw brings us a story about two boys. One of the boys is real, while the other isn’t – but you may have a hard time deciding which is which. Our narrator is Daniel, who met Luke in the playground, when the latter was six. Luke is the only person who can see him; yet Daniel seems no common-or-garden ‘imaginary friend’, having apparently attained consciousness. Daniel returns home with Luke, to find a household under strain: Luke’s mother, Claire, is fragile, still affected by her own mother’s suicide; when an incident brings matters to a head, she leaves, taking Luke with her.
One day, Claire has a surprise for Luke – she’s bought him a pet dog. This new friend starts to take Daniel’s place in Luke’s life, so much so that Daniel finds his very self disintegrating. In a bid for survival, Daniel tricks Luke into poisoning the dog with some of Claire’s medication. She, of course, doesn’t believe her son when he says that Daniel told him to do it, and takes Luke to see a psychiatrist. Soon after, Luke is able to restrain Daniel, eventually locking him away inside his head, for twelve whole years. But, when Luke is eighteen, Daniel re-emerges – with his own ideas of what Luke should do, who Luke should be.
In This Way I Was Saved is quite a difficult book to evaluate. How do you judge characterisation, for example, when you can’t even trust that the narrator is – well, is, full stop? Well, let’s see: DeLeeuw has created a chilling presence in Daniel, a narrator who’s just that bit too knowing, whose voice is that bit too articulate. Not to mention that his opinions are also pretty vile; Daniel has little patience for humans and their messy emotions: when Luke finds a girl in whose company he can relax and forget his cares, Daniel just takes the view that Luke is being insincere – and the situation Daniel then engineers is not a pleasant one. As a portrait of such a cold individual, the book is a great success.
Yet there’s ambiguity here, too, as it’s possible to read Daniel as being entirely a product of Luke’s delusion. This is a more difficult reading to make, because the narration naturally invites us to view Daniel as a separate entity; and I’m not sure that the novel sustains its ambiguity through to the end. But it’s fascinating to read a scene and see it happening in two different ways simultaneously; DeLeeuw interweaves the possibilities well. The reading of Daniel-as-delusion also deepens the book’s portrait of people and lives unravelling; it’s harrowing for characters and readers alike.
In This Way I Was Saved is not without its flaws. I feel a sense of distance in the progression of the plot – as though it’s happening rather than being made to happen – which I think arises because neither Luke nor Daniel is able to truly drive the story directly. Nevertheless, I am impressed with what DeLeeuw has done in his novel. It’s easy to assume, from the first few pages, that you know who Daniel is and what has happened. I read most of the book thinking, it can’t be that simple – and, happily, it’s not.
No more of that, though, for it’s the road to spoilers. To conclude: In This Way I Was Saved is an intriguing puzzle of a book which takes you into a mind that’s not a comfortable place to visit, but that visit is compelling all the same. Whose mind is it, though? There’s a question to ponder…