The Quiet Child by John Burley

Review published on August 27, 2017.

Right at the beginning of this story Michael McCray, a quiet, measured man, appears to be mulling something over and that maybe he should pack his family up into the Chevy Bel Air right there and then to move for a fresh start to some place new where things may be better for them. Instead he puts the boys in the truck and drives into town to buy ice creams to celebrate their mother, Kate, feeling unusually well that day. A decision he will come to regret.

I really enjoyed this southern gothic atmospheric psychological thriller set in the small town of Cottonwood, California in 1950s. The Quiet Child, for me, was a captivatingly compelling read about the disappearance of two young boys, ten-year-old Sean and his six-year-old brother Danny, and of the race to find them alive.

The pace at the start is like Michael, quiet and measured, but then the pace and action ramps up and doesn’t abate until the finality of the book.

Kate desperately wants her boys back at any cost and demands that her husband find them. This Michael vows to do and makes the decision to ‘go it alone’, without the help of the authorities. How far will he go to save those he loves the most, and will he be able to live with the consequences of his actions?

In the race to find the boys are Cottonwood’s Sheriff Jim Kent, and two Shasta County detectives who are also hellbent on bringing them back alive to their mother.

Danny suffers from selective mutism. He hasn’t uttered a word in all of his six years of life. A strange boy that things tend to happen around. From the time of his birth, sickness and death have befallen those around him, including his mother, who is now in the final stages of Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Misfortune has plagued anyone coming into contact with young Danny and with a long list of sickness, accidents and deaths, the community believe he has special, poisonous powers enabling him to cause them harm. Are they right to be afraid of him and to believe that it may be better for everyone if Danny is never found?

This is 1954 and without the modern day technology and forensic advancements we’ve become so reliant upon in our modern world this will be a slow, methodical and time-consuming investigative operation. The process feels painstakingly long and drawn out, giving a sense of time running out for the boys. One such process which brings home this disadvantage is when a telephone call needs tracing. Paper records are logged by each busy telephone switchboard operative. These details then need to be cross checked and referenced with at least two other telephone exchanges across the county. This, just one example of how our lives have changed with our immediate access to internet information and tracking technology and mobile phones, gives an authentic sense of time and place to the narrative.

There are some beautifully touching moments with Michael’s bitter-sweet memories of his wife over the years interspersed throughout. It is obvious that he is still as much in love with her as he ever was and will do whatever he can to save her from her inevitable premature death.

Do not expect explanations for the source or cause of the illnesses, Burley only hints at the possibility of supernatural forces at play or even, more plausibly for modern times, chemical pollutants seeping in and poisoning the environment and its residents. As mentioned above, this is the 1950s and a time where environmental issues are less likely to be considered, especially from a small town community heavily steeped in superstitious beliefs. Read The Quiet Child with the mind of someone from that era and you’ll not be dissatisfied.

Incorporating a credible cast of characters, scenarios and stunning imagery of the area (well, chiefly memories being invoked of vacationing in and around the stunning locations), with several twists and turns, The Quiet Child along with its disturbing conclusion and final shocking twist was a tense, exciting read.

Perfect for fans of American small town historical drama and equally, due to the slight ambiguity of its genre, I think fans of Stephen King and Paul Tremblay would enjoy this one too.

Highly recommended.

Sharon Mills 4/4

The Quiet Child by John Burley
HarperCollins 9780062431851 pbk Jul 2017

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