The Nowhere Child, by Christian White
Christian White challenges Jane Harper for the title of best Australian crime author, in my book.
I picked this up initially because I was interning at Affirm Press, one of the most wonderful small publishers in Melbourne. I was enjoying every second of it and wanted to get a bit more of an idea of their title list, so I finally sat down on my favourite swivel chair and got to work.
Work is a stupid word to use, though, because Christian White's writing is a bloody delight to read.
Sammy Went, a two-year-old girl from Kentucky, vanished twenty years ago. Kim Leamy, a photography teacher from Melbourne, is approached one lunchtime by an American accountant, who is convinced that she is the missing girl – that she is Sammy Went.
Kim travels to the US to uncover the truth, and we are given insights into the dynamics of the small town and its complicated inhabitants, then and now.
This book was one step ahead of me the whole time – at so many places throughout the story, I thought I'd worked out the motives for a potential villain, or I'd realised who had kidnapped Sammy Went and why they did so. But each time, I was wrong. Does that make me bad at reading crime, or does it just mean that Christian White is a brilliant storyteller? Possibly both (ahh!). I've heard that the rest of his books, The Wife and the Widow and Wild Place, are just as gripping.
We were given a deep, personal insight into quite a few characters from each of the dual timelines; Sammy's world is grim and unjust, as characters are forced to hide elements of their lives from the public just to protect themselves. Family is a big theme in this book – the family you earn and the family you're born with – and I loved to watch the characters learn about each other as the mystery unraveled.
There was also a perfect mixture of action, suspense and storytelling. In so many places, the action was driven by emotion, and the characters' decisions became understandable as their circumstances were revealed – that made it twice as hard for me, as a reader, to work out whodunnit. I was hooked until the end.
Religion and culture
There was also some heartfelt commentary that was inherent in the story and integral to the outcome. A lot of the suspense and the unsettled tone of the book came from the religious fervour that was rife in the community of Manson from the moment Sammy Went disappeared. This captivated me as a modern reader from Melbourne: diving into the snapshot of a possible historical community that was replicated across America at the time was a really thought-provoking experience.
Christian White's way of handling religion and acceptance, greed and selflessness, was really affecting – I was creeped out by the snake-handling, but could see the possibility of love and faith underneath it all. It never felt like White was completely rejecting the idea of religion, which I liked. It was just that religion in this form serves no one but the powerful. I appreciate his depiction of a town choking slowly on its own scripture. People's lives were changed by their fear – this seemed really powerful to me, especially from a modern perspective.
For me, the mystery worked – I was taken in by the characters and captivated by the setting. The dual timelines became a strength of the book, though I feel like so often this structure can feel forced or choppy. Nope, I can honestly say I was interested in both points in time and was as equally immersed in Sammy's story as I was in Kim's.
Beautifully written, brilliantly edited. I can't wait to read the rest of Christian's White's stories, because they'll be good ones.
Thanks a bunch for reading with me,