Review published on September 21, 2017.
There is a dark cloud hanging over Grace, a small town in the Bible-belt of Alabama, a dramatic, physical phenomenon presaging a major storm. However, it is also an allegorical reflection of the darkness which overshadows a town where five young, church-going girls have, over a period of time, disappeared. They have never been found and their kidnapper is known only as Bird, the nickname the people of the town have given him. When fifteen-year-old Summer Ryan goes missing she leaves a note so, at first, the local police do not believe that she too has been kidnapped. However, her family, particularly her twin sister Raine, are not convinced and not only put pressure on the police to take the disappearance seriously, but launch their own search.
Summer and Raine are regarded by everyone as being like “chalk and cheese”, with Summer being seen as the perfect one, a model student with a remarkable musical talent, whilst Raine is more troubled, a strong-willed girl who is always ready to challenge authority. However, it soon becomes apparent that perhaps Summer was living a secret life, maybe she was not quite so perfect? What is unquestionable is the deep love Raine feels for her twin sister and her determination to discover what has happened to her. She enlists the help of two friends, Noah and Purv, and, whatever the threats to their own safety, the three of them embark on a search for the truth. As in any community, there are secrets to be exposed and some people will go to any lengths to ensure that this does not happen.
The story is told in alternating voices: Raine’s exposes the reader to the present, to her determined search for her sister, whilst Summer’s reflects what was going on in her life before she disappeared. This very well-executed device adds to the developing tension in this dark and chilling story. The brutal, searing honesty of Chris Whitaker’s writing style evokes vivid images of his characters, as well as the environment in which they live. He explores a number of themes in his story-telling, including sexual, physical and emotional abuse, poverty, chronic illness, drug and alcohol addiction, revenge, forgiveness and redemption. Also, and central to the developing story, is his exploration of the dark side of the power of religion as a way of instilling fear in a small community. Although some people use the crisis as a way of trying to settle old scores, he also describes a community pulling together at times of crisis.
The author’s use of language, with its evocation of a southern state in America, was so convincing (I found myself reading the narrative with a southern drawl!) that it came as a shock to discover that he is British. However, I subsequently discovered, from his blog, that he used the International Dialects of English Archive to listen to Alabamans speaking in order to achieve an authentic dialogue. For me, as a reader, all his hours of research certainly achieved his aim.
The plotting is intricate and nuanced and at no time did I ever feel that I needed to suspend disbelief. The characters are exceptionally well-drawn; all are flawed in some way but most are trying to make the best of their life, to retain a belief in a better future. The relationship between Raine, Noah and Purv was central to the developing story and was both heart-breaking in its poignancy and, at times, light-heartedly humorous. I know that they are characters who will remain with me for a long time.
At times, I found this a heart-wrenching story; more than once it had me in tears as I found myself feeling truly exposed to the raw and powerful emotions of characters struggling to make sense of their lives, their beliefs, and their hopes for the future. Whatever the darkness of this story, and at times it is extremely dark, it is also a tale about the power of love and friendship and, having felt so emotionally invested in many of the characters, I was pleased that it ended on a note of optimism for them; in the hope for a better future. A powerful and affecting novel which I highly recommend.
Linda Hepworth 5/4
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