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When Madame Préau returns to her own house outside Paris after several years spent in a convalescent home, she immediately notices that the neighborhood has changed. Now, instead of a beautiful garden next door there is a new house. And she can see directly into her new neighbors’ windows.
Madame Préau quickly feels that something isn’t right. Her neighbors have two perfectly healthy children who play in the yard after school. But there is also a third child: a young boy who looks malnourished and abused, and tosses small stones at her window in an apparent call for help. The family denies his existence.
But is the little boy real, or merely a hallucination of a lonely, mentally unstable old woman cut off from her own beloved grandson?
When the police refuse to listen to her, Madame Préau decides to take matters into her own hands. She’s determined to help the little boy, and she’ll do anything to make sure he’s safe…
Table of Contents
A Preview of The Devil's Sanctuary
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Living Up to Expectations
Each of us has heaven and hell in him…
OSCAR WILDE, THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY
THE SUN and wind were playing a lively game with the curtains. The little boy smiled up from his chair. To him it seemed like an invisible creature being tickled by this summer Sunday, playing hide-and-seek behind the jacquard fabric. When he closed his eyes, the child would have sworn that he heard chuckles of delight underneath the medallion print.
With his back straight and his palms either side of his plate, the little boy turned to look out of the window onto the garden. A glorious scent emerged from bunches of gladioli, lilies, and dahlias. Their astonishing colors sent bursts of light into the half-lit room. Peas rolled into the chicken gravy, swept aside by knife blades, indifferent to the lunchtime conversation.
Gérard went back to chewing, his nose in the air, hammering kicks against the legs of his chair. He wasn't remotely interested in the subjects raised by his uncle, parents, and grandparents—wage claims brought on by a rise in food prices, the "teeny-tiniest swimsuits in the world," an American nuclear test done on the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific, and a trial in Nuremberg.
"Goering is pleading not guilty. It makes your blood run cold."
Gérard's uncle passed the silver breadbasket to his neighbor.
"The defendants don't feel responsible for the crimes of which they've been accused," exclaimed Gérard's father before biting down on a crust of bread.
The little boy had turned the chicken skin into little balls and pushed it into his cheeks. Now he raised a white napkin to his lips, pretending to wipe his mouth, and slyly spat out the chewed meat. All Gérard had to do then was drop the napkin under the table. Like every Sunday since the end of the war, the cat would come later to erase all traces of his crime. But then, something disturbed the natural order of things. A voice rose across the crystal glasses.
"Daddy, last night I saw Mommy."
Sitting stock-still at her place with her back to the window, Gérard's cousin smiled. Everyone's gaze converged on the little girl with the thick hair cut short below her ears. Dark bangs stopped at her eyebrows, and her emerald-green eyes shone out below.
"She came into my room and sat down on the bed."
Gérard froze. A breeze lifted the curtains, giving everyone at the table the shivers. His uncle blotted his moustache with the corner of a napkin.
"Elsa, be quiet, please."
"You know what? She was wearing her flowered dress. The one you like so much, Daddy."
Her grandmother let out a moan and waved a hand in front of her face as if to chase away flies.
"Elsa, go to your room," insisted her uncle.
The little girl's face was as pale as a bar of soap.
"She said you shouldn't worry about her. Mommy is well. She says she sends you a kiss. All of you. You too, Gérard. But she doesn't want her nephew to feed the cat under the table anymore; she says it's disgusting."
Gérard dropped his napkin. The contents shook out across his shorts, revealing his attempted sleight of hand. In the same instant, a slap stung his left cheek.
"I told you to stop that!" his mother scolded.
Tears filled the little boy's eyes and his stomach hurt. He lowered his head toward his stained shorts, so he didn't see his uncle get up from the table and haul his daughter unceremoniously off to her room. Elsa's cries echoed in the stairwell. No one dared eat dessert. The St. Honoré cake stayed wrapped in its paper, much to the chagrin of Gérard, who was being pushed out onto the landing by his mother before he could even button his jacket.
"Would you hurry up? Stop dawdling!"
Gérard hated his cousin since she had gone crazy.
They don't believe that you're alive, but they're wrong.
All I have to do is close my eyes to find you.
You're wearing your pretty dress covered in flowers.
And you've tied a scarf in your hair too quickly.
I think that you're kissing me, crying.
My cheeks smell of your kisses.
You walk so quickly that the train has already carried you away.
You're going to come back. I'm certain that you're going to come back.
It's only a name on a list.
They're all wrong.
THE YOUNG man slowly locked his arms across Elsa's chest. He held her tightly against his body, not letting go. Her eyes closed, the young girl kept her mouth open, as if she were at the dentist. She breathed like a puppy that had run about too much, her head bent back, her gingham blouse inflating. A sigh escaped her lips.
"Go ahead. Squeeze. Squeeze me tight, cousin."
In Elsa's garden, between the cherry tree and the chaise longue missing its cushion, Gérard felt confused. An overpowering sensation emanated from the young girl and her surroundings. The lawn seemed to be inhaling the young man feet first, the plum trees bending toward Elsa, holding out their ripe fruit. When he was with his cousin, the world seemed to shrink around her and her alone, erasing everything around them, leaving just the faintest outlines; Gérard could only make out the beauty of this incandescent girl as she swooned.
"The stars," she said, her voice barely audible. "I can see tiny yellow stars. Squeeze again!"
Gérard's arms tensed, responding to the plea in spite of himself. Then, suddenly, the gasping stopped. She collapsed. Her body slid against her cousin's stomach and fell to the ground like a sack of laundry. The young man hastened to hoist her onto the chaise longue. He slapped lightly at her cheeks, moaned her name, and felt for her pulse, but he couldn't manage to find it in her ivory-colored wrist.
He brought his mouth to her lips to give her some air. There was no sign of life. Sobbing, he shook the young woman by the shoulders.
"Elsa! Answer me!"
He cursed himself for surrendering to the young girl's capricious desires, for agreeing to play such an idiotic game with her, gambling her life for a thrill. But he hadn't wanted to look weak in front of Elsa, so he had slipped his arms under hers and squeezed and squeezed.
As Gérard had often witnessed before, his cousin made a miraculous return from the dead with a cozy laugh, coughing, like a little girl recovering from being tickled. Toughened up by her years at boarding school, she had no doubt fraternized with girls—girls from good families—and broken the rules of her orderly upbringing. Elsa had snuck out and developed a taste for the forbidden, but there was nonetheless a casual grace about her, and she was as confident as a boy.
"It was delicious, cousin."
Elsa grabbed Gérard by his shirt collar and pulled their mouths together.
"Do it again. Suffocate me in your arms. Make me die again."
The touch of madness was irresistible.
Saint-Prayel School, Moyenmoutier
15 September 1961
The students in my class are horribly clever, regardless of how Monsieur Mohr goes on about them. I'm grateful to them for making my job easier for me: I'm much encouraged by my first steps on the path to teaching. I believe that children have things to teach us about our capacity for understanding and grasping the truths of this world. They hide behind new words, ones they've barely learned, and I find it endearing.
I miss you, and the house, too. Here, I often go for walks. The forests are magnificent and I breathe in pure air that smells of ferns. Mommy would find the region too cool, though.
I have a comfortable little apartment just above the school that comes with the job, but I am fairly isolated and far from the town. Gérard doesn't visit me unless he gets leave, which is rare. In Algeria he is mainly treating civilians, and tells me he is performing amputations on children. I think that Algerians aren't just fighting for their independence; they're starting a real revolution. It's all anyone talks about around here. Sons, husbands—many of the men have left, and those who come back are demoralized or violent. They've all become hardened, and they put on an arrogant machismo. They have to learn to respect their wives and children again. Some have come back so burdened that they are physically hunched over, their shirtsleeves sticking out from under their jackets, as if they were carrying stones in their hands.
Forgive me for writing about sad things again, but I have no one to tell other than a stray dog who pisses against my door. I chase him out of the playground regularly, as I don't want him to give the children rabies. I hope that you're well and that you don't miss me too much.
With love and kisses,
SHE WAS standing up in her room a meter away from her bed, staring at the ceiling. There was an odd noise, like a marble rolling along the floorboards. The noise stopped, and started again, this time like the shoes of a dancer called to the attic for a macabre ballet. The woman stood in the middle of the room, dressed in a nightgown, one hand running over her round belly.
Leave me alone. Leave me alone, please.
She had gotten up to drink a glass of water to improve her circulation. Then, when she was back in her room, she opened the curtains, worried. With her face tilted toward the frost-covered glass, she looked out beyond the chestnut tree, looking around for someone, a shadow crossing the snowy garden, the memory of a floral dress disappearing around the corner of the street one spring day during the war. Then the noise happened again. A marble across the floor. Sashaying footsteps.
No. I'm begging you. Go away!
Elsa was standing still by the window, her skin taking on a bluish cast from the streetlamp. Her knees weakened and buckled, and she writhed in pain. Overhead, the noises started again, louder, in the rhythm of her contractions with each pitch and roll of her insides. She didn't groan, didn't scream, didn't wake her husband.
Leave me alone! I don't want to come with you! Not now!
It was two hours since the sun had withdrawn from her frozen feet. The noise of her fall had woken Gérard. His young wife was sitting in a puddle of blood. Elsa was giving birth.
22 August 1974
I can't go on with your way of life anymore. Your absences are longer than ever. Seeing you come back late, neglecting your son and your wife, all so that you can take care of people other than us—people who aren't suffering like I am—is not acceptable. To endure the weariness of a doctor who has reached his limit, to be subjected to your mood swings and your listlessness, is too much for me. I already know how this scene ends; there's no need to play it out further. Your plan to leave for Canada to take up your studies again and to specialize is a shining example of your egotism. How can you intend to dedicate your life to diseases of the heart when you show so little regard for my heart and that of your son? Did you even think of us, of what I would be obliged to sacrifice in order to follow you—my position as headmistress, for example?
I would prefer that you not return home again and that, in time, you rent your own studio so that you can take stock.
This changes nothing about my feelings for you. I love you; you are the only man in my life and my son's father.
I will explain the situation to Martin.
KNEELING IN front of the low table in the living room, the child unwrapped his present with the enthusiasm of a man condemned to death. The size of the item covered in forest-green paper was far too modest to correspond to Martin's hopes. He had asked for a giant Erector set and a chemistry kit for his birthday. The child held up the package: too heavy for a board game or a giant puzzle.
"Go ahead, Martin, open your present."
His mother forced a smile through too much makeup. Her lipstick was like a dark purple rail track through the snow. The cider was too sharp and the chocolate cake needed more butter. Also wanting were Martin's classmates: the little party couldn't be held until the second Wednesday in January. There was no upside to being born between Christmas and New Year at all. It was usually impossible to get all of your friends together, the luckier of whom had gone skiing, and there was the disappointment of Christmas gifts being put aside for your birthday—unless your parents thought ahead—which was never the case with Martin's parents. So, the gifts that he received were rarely as impressive as those opened by his friends twice each year. Regardless, Martin's mother had always held on to the idea that they should "mark the occasion."
"A little party, just us. What do you say?"
Sitting on the big armchair in the living room, her knees together below her lilac wool dress, she looked like she was praying, her elbows bent, watching Martin's fingers tear open the wrapping paper on his first gift. When he saw the encyclopedia, the child turned pale.
"Do you like it?"
"It's not what I wanted."
"It's a useful gift. You'll need it for your studies."
"Yes, but it's not what I wanted."
"We don't always get what we want in life, Martin. Open your other gift."
"If it's like the first one, I don't want it."
"Stop that. Go on, open it. It came from Galeries Lafayette in Paris."
Martin pulled off the paper more quickly this time: maybe it was one of those wonderful toys he'd seen last week in the window of the big Parisian shop. Inside a gray cardboard box lined in cellophane, the little boy found a pair of mittens and a matching hat.
"It's pure wool. You won't be numb with the cold going to school in the morning with them."
The hat was rust-colored with brown snowflakes embroidered on it. It was a ridiculous thing to put on in the playground. Martin looked at his mother, incredulous.
"Why did you buy me that?"
She leaned down to her son and caressed his face.
"Listen, Martin, times are hard, as well you know. Your father has abandoned us and I have to get by on just my own salary, so—"
"That's not true! You're talking rubbish!"
On the verge of tears, Martin threw the box and its contents on the ground, then ran out and shut himself in his room. His mother's voice echoed up the stairs: "Come now, try to be reasonable, Martin! You need a hat much more than an Erector set!"
2 April 1979
For the attention of the Director of the County Council of Seine-Saint-Denis
Allow me to bring your attention to a sect that appears to be operating currently in Seine-Saint-Denis and with which I have unfortunately been in contact several times following a family tragedy.
This organization pretends to heal psychological damage and serious illness through nutrition and extreme fasting. Without a doubt, it involves cultlike behavior.
I had the opportunity to test several of their methods, including instincto-therapy, and I can report that the kind of practices suggested reduce the patient to an extremely fragile mental state. They allow the patient to become enthralled by what they are devoting themselves to, sometimes causing social and family breakdown in cases where these were not the original causes of the patient's isolation.
Certain individuals call themselves shamans, but they are nothing but frauds. That is the case for the person whose name and address is attached herewith. He is currently offering wildly expensive weekends at his farm in Neufmoutiers-en-Brie, where they are holding seminars on Peru on the pretext of helping his followers to reach, and I quote, "a quest for a redeeming self truth." I think that this person is a crook. Personally, I have given him a great deal of money, thinking that he would help my father to overcome his cancer. Result: my father had a brutal relapse due to a massive vitamin B deficiency. I have already filed a report with social services and at the police station in my town, but the man is well established here and gains new followers daily in market squares across the region—that's where he's based, behind the counter at his supposedly organic fruit and vegetable stall.
Dreadful charlatans are hiding behind this façade of getting back to nature and alternative psychology. We cannot allow not only a great many adults, but their children, too, to be subjected to such danger. As the headmistress of a school, I know certain parents who are in thrall to this gentleman, and who swear by him and him alone to heal their families. I could not let such instances with medical and social implications go unreported.
I am depending upon your swift intervention in this matter.
Yours faithfully, with respect,
Madame Elsa Préau
Headmistress of Blaise Pascal School
PS—I have CCed this letter to the Minister of Health and the Police Commissioner.
ON THE third floor of the hospital complex in Seine-Saint-Denis, an overweight female doctor was sitting in a narrow room behind a desk groaning with files. She was speaking to Madame Préau, and Madame Préau was listening to her as closely as she could, her hands folded and her legs crossed. She had the distinct feeling that other people were standing around her—medical personnel, nurses, orderlies with mocking expressions. The woman in the white blouse was explaining something very important. It was precisely for this reason that there were so many people in this room staring at her.
"The battle is over, Madame Préau. What you have done for your father all these years is outstanding. You have managed to keep him in the best possible physical condition, well beyond the prognosis that we gave him after his remission."
What was worrying Madame Préau was her ability to take in what this pink-cheeked woman was going to tell her. These past years had been difficult, and her nerves were frayed. Martin's departure for Canada hadn't helped things. But she understood that her son's studies took precedence over his mother and that he needed to be closer to his father.
"I understand that it is difficult to hear this, but I know that you can take it. If we look at the MRI…"
Madame Préau turned toward the window and concentrated on the view of the park. Poplars quivered in the rays of the setting sun. It would be so lovely to walk along there just now, and leave behind this sentencing.
"Overall, his health has deteriorated. We will give him the best possible care, but you should know that he will continue to suffer."
Her mother would have so loved those pathways of white flowers, the foliage turning inky in the shadow of the beech trees. Madame Préau would take her father there twice a week, pushing the wheelchair to a bench where, in the shade of a honeysuckle, she would sit, the invalid by her side. She would read the paper to her father, commenting passionately about the first measures put in place by the new government—measures that would give the French people a more optimistic perspective about their future.
"If he were to fall victim to respiratory failure, we need your authorization—do you understand?"
The new government didn't waste any time: raising the minimum wage, increasing the minimum rate for the old age pension and child benefits, temporarily suspending the deportation of foreigners… And then there was that astonishing festival dreamed up by the Ministry for Culture, a national day dedicated to music! Madame Préau asked suddenly:
"What is the date today?"
"The twenty-first of June."
"Yes, of course. Where is my head—"
"Madame Préau, do you give us your consent so that we could let him go?"
At the school today, they were celebrating the first day of summer in the playground. Madame Préau had arranged for break time to be livened up for the children with songs and dancing. A tiring day. They hadn't heard shouts of joy like that since the last school fête. The headmistress's heart was still swelling with happiness.
"Madame Préau, please, we need your consent."
The ill man's daughter turned to face the doctor and noticed her hostile expression. Pink and white scrubs moved back and forth behind her restlessly, sharpening their syringes.
"Tell me, Docteur," whispered Madame Préau, "this evening, for the music festival, couldn't you just see your devoted orderlies singing the latest hits to the patients just before they give them the lethal injection?"
13 March 1997
I am sorry to have to write you this letter, but you have given me no choice.
You cannot get away with it just because you're my daughter-in-law. Refusing to let me see my grandson is enormously cruel. I do not see how his spending Wednesday afternoons with his granny poses such a problem for you. Bastien is a charming child, he's very intelligent, and he's my only grandchild. I'm also very concerned about his health; Bastien has lots of bruises. Does he have trouble with his balance? Does he fall often? If not, do you see any reason for his contusions?
I think that you are being subjected to a bad influence at the moment, one that is altering your perception of things. I have another hypothesis about your situation, but I would rather discuss it face-to-face. And I don't see how keeping a goat and a baboon in my garden could possibly be harmful to my grandson. To the contrary; it has been proven that contact with animals is particularly beneficial to children. Besides, Bamboo never gets out of his cage.
I should warn you, however, that if you prevent me from seeing Bastien, I will be obliged to contact the judge at family court. I intend to exercise my visitation rights just like any other grandmother.
Kiss Bastien and Martin for me.
THE SCRAWNY daisies had been pulled up by the root. The dandelions, too. Parched by the heat, the earth crumbled between your fingers.
"Are they for me, Bastien?" asked Madame Préau.
"No, they're for Mommy."
The little boy held the makeshift bouquet tightly in his left hand. He walked with his head bobbing, one palm against his granny's, which was damp with sweat. There wasn't a breath of wind to chase the dog days of summer away.
"I really like Captain Cousteau."
"Me too, Bastien."
"Why did he die?"
"Because the Good Lord needed him."
"It's not fair. Who's going to take care of the whales now?"
"You, when you're older."
"Why did you come to school to pick me up and not Mommy?"
"Because she had to work. She'll come later."
On the path, between two wisps of yellow grass that had grown up through the tarmac, a colony of fireflies had caught the child's eye. He stopped for a moment to watch the insects mating happily.
"What kind of insects are these, Granny Elsa?"
Madame Préau raised an eyebrow.
"Not God's creatures, certainly."
"Come on, Bastien, let's cross."
"But that's not the way home."
- "Translated in a deliciously forthright style by Nora Mahony, The Stone Boy mischievously toys with the reader's expectations, blending elements from the traditional mystery tale with those of the paranormal...The irascible and irrepressible Madame Préau makes for a delightfully ambiguous protagonist, and Loubiere deftly plots a compelling tale that is as poignantly heartbreaking as it is thrilling."—Irish Times
- "A creepy psychological thriller....Is the boy real? Is Martin a loyal son or a conspirator? The truth is as chilling as the rest of this unsettling tale."—Publishers Weekly
- "You'll distrust your own dog after you read this clever entrapment.... Buy this book, or make sure your library buys it. It's a good read with the promise of long shelf life."—The Durango Herald
- "[Loubiere] pulls off a few nifty tricks and surprise twists that should outsmart readers who think they can guess the ending...If her other novels are as entertaining as THE STONE BOY, she deserves a loyal following."—Richmond Times-Dispatch
- "You may wonder, how interesting is a story about an old lady that thinks she sees a small boy outside her window? Let me put it this way: my jaw is still on the floor. Even after finishing THE STONE BOY, I have no idea how Sophie Loubière pulled it off-every page was interesting; every page held my attention.... What you'll read will hover in your mind long after the final page is closed."—The Avid Reader
- "An absorbing psychological thriller."—The Times (UK)
- "Impossible to put down."—La Semaine
- "A suspenseful psychological thriller, The Stone Boy is also a beautiful picture of a passionately loving grandmother, an unreliable old lady, more nosy and intrusive than Miss Marple."—Françoise Chandernagor
- "This book is a real gem full of creativity, humour and suspense...with an unforgettable heroine."—Le Nouvel Observateur
- "A thoroughly menacing psychological thriller."—Morning Star (UK)
- "A novel as complex as a spider's web."—Le Dauphiné Libéré
- "An intriguing story - one that lingers after the last page is read.... A truly wonderful read."—BookLoons
- "On the evidence of this atmospheric and complex thriller, France is shaping up as a font of impressive new crime writers specialising in unorthodox and genuinely unsettling narratives. . . French Noir is in the ascendant."—Financial Times (UK)
- On Sale
- Jul 8, 2014
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Grand Central Publishing