I have been in a reading slump this year. Yep, I have! Not sure if it’s been me or the books. I’ve kept turning pages, but I feel like I have been DRAGGING myself through them, and by the time I’ve reached the end, the idea of writing a review has been ‘meh’! I have just finished Christian White’s debut novel, The Nowhere Child, and I think I can manage to put together some thoughts on this one!
The Nowhere Child won last year’s Victorian Premier’s Prize for an Unpublished Manuscript under the title Decay Theory. I’ve enjoyed reading previous winners’ works, such as The Dry, Foreign Soil and Australia Day, so I was keen to give White’s novel a go.
In 1990, two year old Sammy Went disappears from her home in Manson, Kentucky. Twenty five years later, Kim Leamy, a photography teacher in Melbourne, Australia, is approached by a stranger who tells her that he believes she is Sammy Went. That Sammy and Kim are the same person is settled within the first few chapters – a little too readily perhaps? – and the remainder of the novel is concerned with how Sammy’s disappearance from Manson, and reappearance in Melbourne, came about. Was this a random child abduction? Did it have something to do with the religious cult Sammy’s birth mother was part of? How could Kim reconcile her Australian mother, now deceased, with being an international child abductor? The need to find out these answers made this book an engaging read. But whilst these questions did keep me turning the pages, the writing, for me, was a bit of a let down.
White follows a non-linear structure with chapters alternating between ‘then’ and ‘now’. Sometimes I find this can be frustrating if a chapter is beginning to build momentum and the time frame then shifts, but for the most part, White manages to avoid this by bringing each chapter to a satisfying conclusion. Nevertheless, towards the end of the novel, three chapters in a row concluded with a ‘and then everything turned to black’ scenario which was perhaps a little too convenient. In addition, some of White’s writing fell short with his tendency to ‘tell’ rather than ‘show’. Kim’s first in depth conversation with her birth sister, Emma, for example:
It turned out Emma and I had a lot in common: we both hated it when people cracked their knuckles, had a strong aversion to feet and enjoyed Gillian Flynn novels. And we both got tattoos when we were younger that we regretted.
Some dialogue could have been used to make this point. As it is written, it lacks a deft touch. Similarly, in the final pages, when Kim is returning to Melbourne:
As the 787 descended over Melbourne, I looked out over the city. It was flat and grey, familiar yet somehow different.
This place hasn’t changed, I decided. But the woman coming back here has.
A bit clichéd?
Chopping sentences here or there, trusting that the reader would fill in the blanks, would, for me, have resulted in a more polished novel. White didn’t need to tell me, for example, that Emma was stepping inside a house when I’d already been shown that the door was opened to her and her friend, Shelley. A tendency to repeat phrases or descriptions, for me, came across as either loose writing or editing – the ‘creaking’ of the Eckles’s gate and the use of rope for a makeshift latch didn’t need to be mentioned multiple times, for example, or ‘back in Australia’ twice in a paragraph. And horror of horrors, a minor character’s name changed between paragraphs! Eek!
There was a twist at the end which I was not expecting but aspects to the way the novel wrapped up came across as a little cute. Some dialogue in the final pages rather than the expository style used would have lifted the writing.
Maybe I am being too critical? I suppose it’s because the writing fell a short of previous winners’ books. My expectations were high. White says in his author’s note, he’s ‘only just getting started’ so perhaps I should be a bit more forgiving. As an easy to read, entertaining story, I’d give it a tick. I hope he can come up with another cracking idea and polish the writing a little more so that his next novel is truly satisfying.
Have you read this book? What did you think?