That devastating line lies at the heart of Tim Lebbon’s 2010 novella The Thief of Broken Toys, a superb portraint of grief and loss from ChiZine Publications. Lebbon, as talented a writer as there is working today, tackles a heavy subject with a sure hand, resulting in an unforgettable reading experience.
Autumn in a seacoast fishing village can be a somber time. It’s especially tough on Ray, a man just one year removed from death of his only child, and, subsequently, his marriage. Ray is fading away, drifting through his village, his house and his life, barely registering to the people around him as he tries make sense of a senseless loss. Every thought, every action, leads to thoughts of Toby, and while Ray realizes that he is virtually paralyzed, he can’t make himself move on.
It’s a problem people deal with every day – what’s the best way to handle grief? Do you keep reminders of the person you’ve lost around and deal with the constant reminders, or do you lock them away and deal with the guilt of moving on with your life? For Ray, the thought of healing hurts almost as much as losing Toby, because moving on means, in some ways, leaving his son behind.
One night, as Ray is wandering the cliffs that tower over his tiny village, he has a chance encounter with an old man. The old man takes a broken toy of Toby’s that Ray is carrying with him, a symbol of promises to the boy that Ray never got to keep, another link in the chain of guilt Ray has fashioned for himself. But when that toy appears on his doorstep the next day, fixed and whole again, Ray finds that he feels better. Yes, he’s still thinking of Toby, but a touch of the sadness is gone. It’s a feeling that Ray is still hesitant about, but for the first time in a long time he sees a chance at living his own life again.
Lebbon takes us through the most difficult scenario a parent can imagine without a hint of melodrama. Instead, we’re touched by Ray’s love of his boy; his pain is palpable. His wife, who has turned to another man in an effort to forget her own pain, could easily be the unlikeable villain of the piece, but instead we feel for her, understand her path even if we don’t agree with it. Chalk that up to Lebbon’s skill, which continues to grow with each story he produces. The writing here is spare, yet vibrant, bringing the little village to life and giving us a full portrait of this family that has been shattered, making us grieve for them as much as they grieve for themselves.
The Thief of Broken Toys is just long enough to do what Lebbon wants it to do, and short enough to leave us wanting more. It’s a great, if brutally sad, read, and is highly recommended.