Review: Lisa Thompson’s MG mystery The Goldfish Boy

Confession: this is a review I hadn’t intended to do; I tend to write up only the advance review copy books I get from NetGalley. But on rereading THE GOLDFISH BOY this week with my daughter, it struck me again what a genius work of middle grade fiction it is.

Matthew lives with obsessive-compulsive disorder, triggered by the death of his baby brother years earlier. Now 12, Matthew finds his condition becoming so severe, he hates leaving the house, and as a result he stares out the window a lot, observing goings-on in and around his neighbours’ houses one blisteringly hot summer.

The shock abduction of a toddler  – and the fact that Matthew was the last to observe the boy – throws Matthew into the position of crime solver. That’s difficult when he can’t bear leaving his room, or being near his sometime-friend Melody who – helpful as she is during the investigation – is crawling with germs, to Matthew’s thinking.

What unfolds is the unraveling of a tightly written mystery; and Matthew’s condition, while character-defining, does not, ultimately, hijack his future or the narrative. Incidentally, I loved the portrayal of Matthew’s parents and their support of him as he faces up to the terror of counseling and confronting his demons. (This is why I like middle grade books: for their pretty much unfailing sense of hope. Where the main character in THE REST OF US JUST LIVE HERE seems as if his OCD will drown him, we get the sense that Matthew is going to make progress.)

While Matthew’s own mystery (what did happen all those years ago between him and his baby brother?) is intriguing, it’s the central, cleverly plotted crime that this story turns on. Rereading the story now with my daughter, it strikes me how masterfully Thompson has used everything at her disposal – even the weather – to crank up the tension and keep the pages turning. There isn’t a stray scene or detail that doesn’t ultimately add to the reader’s enjoyment; and best of all, the reader’s immersion inside Matthew’s world is irresistible, as in this passage where Matthew watches his cat on the staircase:

“A tiny dark spot appeared on the cream carpet where he had dribbled. He saw me looking and came straight towards me, the germs dropping from his fur and running in all directions into the carpet.”

My son had, until recently, taken to using “OCD” as an “fun” synonym for “attention to detail.” I told him why that’s not cool, and he stopped. I have to say I’m thrilled that there are books like THE GOLDFISH BOY. Barack Obama told the New York Times recently how reading books helped him get through his presidency, letting him understand other peoples’ lives by stepping inside them for a few hundred pages.

That’s what books are: empathy delivery devices, if we just take the time to open those pages, and open our minds. This is nowhere more important than in the 9 to 12 age range, I think: what an achievement to help young readers feel more parts of the human experience, and really understand what it’s like to live in someone else’s skin. Great job.

Amazon rating: 5 stars

Published by Scholastic in the US: February 28, 2017

Published in UK: paperback out now

Sheila M. Averbuch is a writer of middle grade fantasy and sci-fi. To subscribe to posts from this blog as they’re published, sign up in the margin, or follow on twitter at @sheilamaverbuch

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