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Balancing the urges to nurture or smother

DURING my first pregnancy, a friend confided that while she adored her child, she felt happiest each night when the baby was finally asleep and out of harm's way. I nodded compassionately but silently scoffed. Why was she so focused on danger? Did she want to make a "Rapunzel?of her child?

Surely I'd never be that over-protective or anxious; I'd encourage an adventurous spirit. Months later, after my son in his gleeful first days of walking fell against a table, a hard knob rising on his perfect skull, I began to understand the enormous relief that came each day he stayed alive. Even now, with my sons both teenagers, I sometimes wish I could buckle them into a double stroller to maneuver them safely down city streets thorned with dazzling dangers and unspeakable terrors.

In "The Possession of Mr Cave,?Matt Haig takes on the unspeakable terrors. In fact he stacks the deck with them: the narrator's mother dead by suicide, his wife dead at the hands of a burglar and ?in the chilling, riveting, heartbreaking scene that opens the novel ?his son, Reuben, dead by a stupid attempt to curry favor with bullying peers. What's left? And how to find a reason to continue living in the face of grief? These are the initial questions that face Terence Cave, a man who restores antiques but cannot preserve the well-being of those he loves most.

What's left, it turns out, is Reuben's 15-year-old twin sister, Bryony. So Terence, fearful and bereft, dedicates himself to his daughter's well-being. Yet the question of what constitutes a 15-year-old's well-being and what a father's protection entails, or should entail, is at the heart of this complex novel.

Terence formulates his parental manifesto during a father-daughter trip to the Vatican, when Bryony stubbornly refuses to cover her shoulders, leaving him to visit Michelangelo's Piet alone. There, he construes the sculptor's message: "Agony awaits if you let your child out into a world of lost souls. You must protect her, and you must never let her go.?

Terence's dedication to Bryony's safety tumbles steeply into fear ?an easy descent for the father of a gifted and beautiful teenage daughter. Quickly his concern bumps up against her inevitable rebelliousness, and he becomes possessed by the need to control her way through an out-of-control world.

Possession, as Haig's title announces, is a central theme in this novel. The simplest and most direct form it takes is Terence's obsession with protecting Bryony from the amorous clutches of a local boy. But Terence is also possessed ?as in overtaken?by the spirit of his dead son, Reuben.

This is after all a novel about twins, and Haig skillfully weaves the twinning of the living and the dead, the good and the bad, the known and the unknown throughout. Terence increasingly seems invaded and controlled by his dead son's memories and dark wishes, goaded into actions ever more dangerous and morally questionable.

Reuben's spectral presence, damaged and damaging, provides the novel's strongest moments. In death, Reuben, with his birthmarked red face, is finally more ferociously alive to his father than he ever was as a boy struggling to fit in. Thus Terence is also possessed by his own guilt, understanding he overlooked his son in favor of his daughter's beauty and talent. Feeling complicit in his son's death, Terence becomes hyper-vigilant toward his daughter's every move. This tangled emotional wrestling is the force that drives the plot.

"The Possession of Mr Cave?is presented as a final confession and apology from a father to his daughter. While the form allows the narrator's flaws to emerge mitigated by loving (if misguided) thinking, it runs the risk of becoming overexplained and repetitive. In this chilling cautionary tale, the narrator's tendencies have to be held in check by the author's sense of proportion.

Haig's effects would have been stronger had he more sharply curbed Terence's excuses and trusted his powerful scenes to bring us inside a father's free-falling mind.

Terence's tragedy reads like a nightmare that leaves a parent shaking in the dark. We might want to see ourselves as more reasonable, able to allow our children their fierce independence. But for all the book's excesses, Haig got under my skin ?while reading "The Possession of Mr Cave,?I kept rising to check on my sons asleep in their beds.


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