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Charming ‘Borrower’ really a horror story

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Have you ever stood in a grocery line where the young mother in front of you gives her kid a gratuitous whack or asks, “Do you really want to be fatter than you already are?” What do you do? How do you cope with the cruelty? And worse, more subtle and sad, what if the mean parent seems sincerely concerned about the child’s welfare or even the child’s immortal soul?

Lucy Hull, the narrator of Rebecca Makkai’s first novel, “The Borrower,” is a children’s librarian in Hannibal, Mo. Until now, her life has been peaceful and uneventful, her various boyfriends good-natured but unimportant. Lucy’s main drama has been declaring her financial independence from her domineering, charming, utterly immoral Russian immigrant father.

Into Lucy’s pleasant life comes a loud-voiced goofball of a kid who loves the library, loves Lucy and loves the entire world of books. His name is Ian Drake, and the other librarians like him a lot because of the uncomfortable fact that if you’re mad about books, there’s probably something missing, something unpleasant or fearsome in the real world you find yourself living in.

Ian’s mother, a fundamentalist Christian who rarely visits the library, sails in one day and hands Lucy a disconcerting list of what Ian shouldn’t be allowed to read: “Witchcraft/Wizardry; Magic; Satanism/ Occult Religions, etc.; Adult Content Matter; Weaponry; the Theory of Evolution; Halloween; Roald Dahl, Lois Lowry, Harry Potter, and similar authors.”

Well, okay. Parents certainly have the right to control their children’s reading habits, or at least give it their best shot. But the situation is complicated by a couple of other issues. Although Lucy hadn’t noticed, the head librarian rather quaintly points out Ian as “that little homosexual boy.” And there’s a self-styled religious-sexual expert, Bob Lawson, roaming the neighborhood in a van he calls the Bobmobile, running a program guaranteed to turn gay boys into straight ones. Ian’s mother has probably enrolled him in this dubious program. Even at this point, she’s probably within her rights. The few physical scars Ian carries are frightening and worrisome, but none of this would allow Lucy to do anything particularly outrageous.

But then Ian runs away. And he runs away to Lucy’s library. He doesn’t weep or otherwise carry on. He still tells goofy jokes and conjures up plays on words. He asks Lucy to give him a ride to his grandmother’s house — his grandmother who lives somewhere. And so Lucy drifts into the life of a kidnapper. She and Ian pool what little money they have, stock up on junk food and set off to — where? Their trip strongly resembles Dorothy’s journey with her friends to find the wizard.

They stay for a few days in a luxury condo in Chicago where Lucy spent her childhood. Her dad enchants Ian with an elaborate story about starting up a chocolate factory when he was a little kid in the U.S.S.R. Ian loves the story, of course, but it gives Lucy pause. Is that story, a beloved part of her own childhood, nothing but fiction? And if it is fiction, should it be revered for its healing qualities? Is Ian’s mother right in insisting upon a reality that doesn’t include Halloween but that is based on a group of stories that some people might think of as myths?

I had a problem with this otherwise charming, witty book that never seemed to occur to the author. A mother’s child has been stolen, kidnapped. He’s missing; he may be dead. Doesn’t this horror transcend every other consideration in this story? Looked at more closely, is Lucy a bookish bachelorette or a creepy sociopath? A kid is more important than a book, no matter how nasty the child or how beautiful the book. But I don’t think that’s what the author is saying, sadly enough.

See regularly reviews books for The Post.

THE BORROWER By Rebecca Makkai Viking. 324 pp. $25.95

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