Books

Christian White
The Nowhere Child

Thirty-year-old Melburnian Kimberly Leamy leads a quiet life. She lives alone in a Coburg apartment and drives to a local TAFE at night where she teaches photography. One rainy evening between classes, Kim is approached by James Finn, a stranger who tells her he is certain she’s connected with the disappearance of toddler Sammy Went, who vanished from a small town in the United States 28 years earlier. Specifically, he believes that Kimberly is Sammy, the little sister he has spent his adult life searching for.

The Nowhere Child is the debut novel of screenwriter Christian White. Under its original title, Decay Theory, this book was the winner of the 2017 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript, the annual prize that has proved to be a bellwether for literary success, launching the careers of publishing heavyweights Jane Harper (The Dry) and Graeme Simsion (The Rosie Project), among others.

So, big shoes to fill. But this wildly ambitious mystery-thriller clomps around in them with surprising agility. Story is king here. At times it reads like a novel reverse-engineered from a screenplay or, at least, a novel written with an eye for adaptation into film. The plot unfolds rapidly. While initially sceptical, Kim soon begins to entertain the idea that Finn might be right when unanswerable questions about her late mother cast doubt on everything she thinks she knows about herself.

This uncertainty is resolved surprisingly quickly. Though this plot point could have been teased out slowly, and potentially been enough to sustain a full book, White has a lot of story to tell and keeps the pace going at a tight clip.

After a DNA test, Kim flies halfway around the world to Manson, Kentucky – a “land of endless wilderness, enormous food portions, country music and Christian talkback radio”. It’s a town beset by secrets and in the thrall of a cabal of religious snake-handling Christian fundamentalists called the Church of the Light Within. White serves up an intricate, claustrophobic village full of suspicion and distrust between the devout and the heathen, between families and within families – and it’s a town populated by superbly (if hastily) drawn characters. It takes a village to vanish a child, and everyone has their part to play.

I’m not really spoiling anything here – all of this is covered in a couple of chapters. It may sound like a lot of plot, but at no point in this novel are we lacking for more mystery and intrigue. It seems everything is bigger in Kentucky – the food, the people, the vast caches of secrets they carry with them.

The story alternates between Kim’s first-person exposition as she travels to the US to attempt to reconcile truth with memory, and the days leading up to and just after two-year-old Sammy Went vanished, which features a stable of rotating characters and points of view. We meet charismatic-but-creepy religious zealots, bigoted obese middle-Americans, God-fearing but closeted queers, down-on-their-luck hard men with hearts of gold – they feel familiar, sure, but nobody is quite who they appear to be, each character having more depth than first impressions suggest.

Everyone has their secrets, and each of those secrets contributes a puzzle piece to the greater mystery of the fate of Sammy Went. Each revelation from 28 years ago illuminates mysteries in the present day and vice versa, and with them the tension is ramped up, so by the time the dénouement arrives the whole thing is strung so tight that the narrative goes spinning off in unexpected directions.

White shows a deft hand in playing with well-worn narrative tropes. It takes skill to subvert them in ways that are both clever and keep the reader invested in the dozen or so emotional journeys being undertaken as we barrel along, and all while exhibiting a real talent to conjure genuine tension and fear on the page, without reverting to schtick or gratuitous gore.

White wears his influences on his sleeve. On the first page Kim is enjoying the image of “a worn old copy of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary propping up the leg of a table in the staffroom”. It serves as a neat visual metaphor for the creative drive of this novel. As an exercise in style, The Nowhere Child is a loving homage to the crackling energy of King and the rural-gothica he mastered through the ’80s and ’90s. At the same time, it suffers from the same excesses of King and the genre. Characters are introduced, named, briefly fleshed out and then discarded in order to advance the plot, or level a broadside at one of society’s many ills. Need some casual homophobia from a posse of drunken roughnecks? Let’s check out the car park of this roadhouse!

The sheer amount of plot this novel covers, combined with the shifting points of view, lend a certain tonal sameness to each character’s observations of the world, be they a bumbling small-town cop or an angsty teenage girl. There’s gritty narration, and then there’s writing so hardboiled it all cooks down into an amorphous – if delicious – all-American brisket.

Primary narrator Kim is endearing but swings wildly between discombobulated introspection and throwing shade around like a passive-aggressive Rembrandt. Those parts of the story told from the point of view of those small-towners can veer towards hokey – a character “glows candy-apple red” when he is nervous, and “cherry-red” the rest of the time.

But it would be churlish to pick out the clunkier sentences or the way expeditious dialogue pops up every couple of pages like cheerful street signs. Weaknesses in the prose are hardly a deal-breaker and White’s narrative instincts more than make up for them. He is a born storyteller, one who seems to instinctively understand the weave of a proper yarn, and The Nowhere Child is tight, gripping and impressive in all the right places.  ZC

Affirm Press, 306pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 14, 2018 as "Christian White, The Nowhere Child". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: ZC