Humber Boy B by Ruth Dugdall
‘They all felt it… because it had mattered, what Ben did, a great deal. Everyone stood on the bridge had felt the impact.’
Humber Boy B is the third Dugdall title starring single mother and probation officer Cate Austen. When I interviewed Ruth about a previous novel, The Woman Before Me, she told me that Cate still had her ‘moment to come.’ In this novel, Cate’s character certainly has her moment, stepping forward from the shadows and allowing us insight into her own dark past.
While she attempts to resolve her own issues, finally reunited with her sister following years of silence, Cate is busy attempting to support Ben, otherwise known as Humber Boy B, while he reintegrates into a society which has shunned him. Convicted of murder eight years previously, Ben has been released from prison, granted one thing only – his anonymity. Alongside his older brother, Adam, Ben was accused of throwing his friend Noah, from the bridge and into the Humber. Cate’s curiosity and Ben’s own narrative explore the reasons a child might commit such a tragic crime.
Ben is eighteen but entirely unworldly, having spend his adolescent years behind bars. He must learn to communicate and experience the world as an adult, without the help of family or friends – he is allowed no communication with his alcoholic mother. For a while, he has only Cate to guide him. Fortunately for Ben, the understanding Leon and his kindly wife take him under their grieving wings, having lost a child of their own years previously. Ben must struggle with keeping his secret under Leon’s watchful gaze as he works with him in the aquarium – can Leon ever understand what happened that day on the Humber? Can he forgive Ben?
Like Dugdall’s previous novels, the tale is written from several viewpoints, including Cate’s, Ben’s and an anonymous ‘silent friend.’ This stranger provides increasing concern for Cate, posting multiple threatening messages on the Facebook page set up to ‘find Humber Boy B.’ Who is silent friend? Why are they out to get Ben for something that happened eight years ago? Is Ben really in danger?
Dugdall is inspired by true crime (she pays tribute to the case of James Bulger in this work), criminology and psychology. The novel is filled with gritty, dark details, exploring the grizzly underside of human nature. Seemingly arbitrary decisions and random moments are exposed as being made up of a lifetime’s experiences – an alcoholic mother, an absent father. In Ben’s case, this is exceptionally important – we are inclined to like the unripe eighteen year old, and driven to discover what really happened on the bridge between the three boys.
For years to come, the image of Noah’s red trainer falling from the bridge before his tiny body will haunt more than one of Dugdall’s characters, and perhaps her readers too. Humber Boy B is highly sophisticated, dark and honest – a real page-turner.