Before Matthew, Duncan and their older sister, Zoe, encounterer the boy in the field and the shroud of evil that surrounds him,their lives appear on the surface about as idyllic as they do predictable: They live with their parents, Hal and Betsy, in a small town outside of Oxford, England. Inside their house with the tightly pruned rose bushes and the front door painted ultramarine (“not navy”) the family moves in chaotic, happy rhythms — eating fish pies for dinner (in the kitchen because the dining room is crammed with school projects), caroling on the holidays, doting on the charming family dog, Lily. In addition to her job as a solicitor, their mom takes a night class in ancient Greek, after announcing “she’d always wanted to read the ‘Odyssey’ in the original.” Each year, their town holds a fund-raiser with an old-fashioned theme (scenes from famous movies) and the teenagers not only don’t ridicule the event, but genuinely enjoy planning and attending it. Their small worlds seem happy, normal, forward-looking, safe.
But after the discovery of the boy (a teenage hospital worker named Karel, whose life they wind up saving) and their collective awakening to the world as a potentially violent place, everything changes. Matthew finds himself silently interrogating the houses and privet hedges along the streets he’s walked his whole life, streets so safe and comfortable that he’s never before even registered them. Zoe goes through the motions, hanging out with friends and studying, but “it was as if her hair had stopped growing. A change, invisible to most other people, had overtaken her.” Duncan, who was adopted, is stunned by his mother’s response (“Did something happen?”) when he requests help searching for his biological mother. “Of course something happened,” he says to himself. “They had found Karel in the field.” As the investigation marches on, the siblings, who aren’t allowed to discuss the crime outside of their house, retreat into isolation, heading down their own paths of self-discovery and emotional dredge work, attempting to wrest some control over what’s controllable.
It’s down those lonely, almost mystical paths where all the good stuff happens. When a ghostlike vision of Duncan’s biological mother appears one night out his window, he knows instantly what it means: He needs to find her. Zoe experiences out-of-body “hovering” moments as a way to distance herself from the crime and some unsettling discoveries about her parents’ not-so-perfect marriage. And, for reasons she can’t explain, Zoe wanders crowded streets looking for a man who smiled at her. Matthew, the only one directly focused on the actual crime, launches a secret investigation with the victim’s brother, as though understanding the man and the motive behind the attack might magically make everything in his family normal again. In the end, of course, that’s not always possible or necessarily desired. Half of all cases remain unsolved, the detective once told Matthew. It’s as much of a consolation as it is a fact.