SHANE DUNPHY’s true story starts with a transcript of his first psychotherapy session, and goes on to recount the strange sequence of events that led a case-hardened child protection professional to seek psychiatric help.
It is a compelling story with several strands, but the ending is disappointing after the suspenseful build-up.
It reads like a novel, set in a fictional small town near Limerick called Garshaigh, and all the characters have fictional names to protect their identity except for the narrator, Shane Dunphy.
It took me a while to get used to the odd combination of a fictional setting and a real-life narrator.
Why not just write a novel,and throw off the shackles of the true-story genre?
Dunphy is taking a break from child protection work, filling in as a special needs teacher while working part-time on a local newspaper.
Out on a hike with his dog and the head teacher, they stop for lunch beside an abandoned stone cottage deep in the woods.
His dog Millie is whining, and as they are about to leave, Dunphy stops dead in his tracks, spooked, hair on end, hearing a child crying. His companion has heard nothing.
Further trouble is in store for Dunphy, when a colleague rings him asking about Rex Gifford. Dunphy knows Gifford as a violent rapist, a serial sex offender with an unusually high IQ, who preys on young female students.
Dunphy helped to put him behind bars three years ago, but Gifford is now back on the streets, and pursuing his colleague’s daughter, a journalism student in Limerick.
When asked to warn Gifford off, Dunphy is initially reluctant, but being a kindly person, against his better judgment he agrees.
He also offers to help a fellow special needs teacher, Maura, who is upset at the suicide in prison of a young boy formerly in her care.
Both quests force Dunphy to revisit characters from his past whom he would rather not see again. Gifford is a genuinely frightening villain, clever and self-controlled.
There is more fun with the villainous Ballsack, a serial offender whom Dunphy visits in prison with questions about the teenager’s death. These glimpses into prison life with its drug dealing and violence ring true.
Meanwhile Orla, the mother of one of Dunphy’s pupils, asks for help with his younger brother Gregory who seems to have invented an imaginary playmate called Thomas. The family of three live in a remote cottage, deep in the woods, and Orla is tense and nervous.
The suspense is cleverly built, as Dunphy pursues the requests for help.
All three story lines are well told, against the background of a likable portrait of Irish small town life — music sessions in the pub, walking the dog, coffee and chats with work colleagues. Dunphy even manages to make the hard work of teaching children with special needs sound like fun.
The most intriguing story is that of the mysterious little boy, Thomas, who seems to be real — he leaves footprints on the forest floor, for example, and Dunphy sees him a couple of times, and hears his ghostly crying.
Local memories of a case of suspected incest, a hidden child, and his troubled mother’s apparent suicide some 20 years ago appear to provide clues, but the time scale is wrong.
Perhaps some readers will be satisfied with the rather sudden ending. Given the pace and suspense of the writing leading up to it, I expected a Stephen King-like twist, which Dunphy could have provided, had he written his story as a novel But because this is fact, such imaginative leaps are ruled out, and the ending seemed to me a cop-out, flat and unconvincing, a poor conclusion to an otherwise well-told story.
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