Desire is the essence of everyone
Though Livesey's novel is literary mystery, the novel transcends borders, transforming what is essentially a story about an attack on a teenage boy into a reflection on what constitutes a family and the desires of adolescent love from a middle-class British perspective. Zoe, Matthew and Duncan find the boy in the field, bleeding and hurt but still alive. As they frantically try to get help, Duncan--the most introspective and artistic of the three--imagines the scene as if he "were riding on the back of a bird."
Back at home, Zoe describes the scene to their father, Hal: the holes on the boy's shorts and the blood on his legs. Later, Hugh Price, the Detective assigned to the case, tells them that the boy's name is Karel Lustig and that he works nights at the Cottage Hospital. The doctors expect a full recovery: "He looked very peaceful. We thought he was asleep." With the investigation into who assaulted him well underway, Duncan remains haunted by the boy's one word, "Cowslip."
Matthew visits Hal, who works at the forge, thinking not about Karel but about Claire, his new girlfriend. Duncan visits Karel in hospital where he finally senses that the boy had made his way to a place of safety. Zoe meets an older American student who seduces her with his Panama hat and white shirt. She has changed so much in the last year: "in the few days since they knelt in the field, she had changed again."
As for the crime itself, there are no clues apart from an empty beer bottle, a bus ticket and the possible sighting of a Caucasian man with brown hair, blue eyes, thirtyish and wearing a suit. Matthew is sure that "the boy in the field" is utterly different from his hulking, gloomy brother. Duncan's mind teems with things he wants to ask Karel. Did he know the three of them were in the field? And why did Karel say Cowslip?
Setting her story in gorgeous Oxford, Livesey excels at the details: a wrinkled apple in the fruit bowl, Lily's toy bear, tea towels hanging limply on the radiator, the silvery drops of water in the sink, the leafy ficus in the corner. Each character seems to be heading in different directions; Hal is never around, their mother, Betsy, is always busy. Matthew reflects on the faces of his parents and his sister and sees his own fears. At first, all four of them want to stop Duncan from embarking on his search to find his birth mother, yet all four of them know that to let him glimpse their reluctance would be a profound unkindness.
Livesey circles back to the boy in the field. Karel "sees the swallows" even he closes his eyes. He had offered his understanding "like a flower borne of sweetness, and darkness." A teenage Zoe is keenly aware that she has missed her chance at happiness. As she tries to remember her lover, her brothers attempt to embrace her in her family's love. Duncan's journey to find his real mother takes on an almost poetic, fairytale musing as he attempts to mix life and loss with the power of Betsy's understanding, her voice putting him at ease.
Running throughout the novel is Livesey's strong theme of family and about how best to deal with troubling situations. The author balances the push and pull of her characters, provoking questions in the readers' mind--particularly about Karel, who at first is grateful to have a second chance at being himself yet remains haunted by his final confession to Duncan. Accordingly, many of the issues and questions enjoyably linger after the mystery itself is wrapped up in the final pages.