Paul Vasey is identified on the back cover as “a boarding school survivor” [my emphasis], which suggests perhaps too subjective a perspective in his fictional representation of life at an abusive Catholic boarding school. A Troublesome Boy is an extremely well-written novel, but also extremely disturbing, as it is intended to be. What is most problematic, for me, though, is not truly knowing the boundaries between reality and fiction. I would like to think that the abuse rampant at “St. Iggy’s” is fictional, but I know it is not. I would like to think that the systemic willful ignorance—even acceptance—of such abuse is fiction, but I know it is not. I would like to think that the extent of the corruption that allows Church officials to remain untried for their crimes (even the local policeman covers for the guilty priest) is fiction, but I think it is not. Still, Vasey’s novel leaves me feeling that the degree and frequency of the physical—as well as emotional and sexual—abuse that the Fathers at St. Iggy’s are responsible for is excessive: while no single incident rings false, overall Teddy and Timothy’s experiences are too much to take in. The mind (my mind at least) screams that this must be over-dramatized. Which leads me not to want to recommend this text except with the strongest of caveats against emotional trauma for the reader. And in the end, while Teddy and Timothy’s stories are told, there is no hope given. In 1959, when the story is set, there is nothing to expect except an inexorable continuation of the criminal and damaging status quo. This, too, we know to have been true until very recently.
A powerful novel, containing perhaps too much truth. So what, then, is my problem? My problem is, I think, that beside all of the abuse, all of the sins of the Church, which are real, this novel does not show any of the very Christian, courageous individuals who also constitute the Catholic Church. I myself was smacked upside the head (granted not at boarding school) for insisting that mountains in a drawing of Jesus could be purple (defying visual logic), by a Nun who was known to enjoy hitting children; except for that one case, the Priests and Nuns who crossed my path were intelligent, compassionate, spiritually supportive individuals. Overall, the good people far outweighed the bad, positive learning far outweighed the injustices. The history of the Catholic Church as an institution is abysmal, unquestionably, but A Troublesome Boy troubled me mostly because its truth is not mitigated by the more complex reality that is, and was, even in 1959, Catholicism.