This beautiful and engrossing book looks at the return of a boy who was missing for four years, and the consequences for him and his family, as they try to find their way to being a family again.
It is a most moving novel and the least sensational take on a socially incendiary issue.
Set in Texas, the story opens on Eric and Laura Campbell and their teenaged son, Griff, as they struggle to get on with their lives without the missing son, Justin. The town had responded to his disappearance four years earlier with extensive searches of the surrounding bay, the whole community making it their cause. Now as we encounter the Campbell family the searching has petered out and the parents have kept their hopes alive by leaving his bedroom as it was before he went missing, and making sure that shops and garages in the neighbouring towns have a replenished supply of flyers with a picture of their missing child.
Relatively early in the novel — and this does carry a minor spoiler alert — Justin is found and is returned to his family. It is not the kind of writing anyway that trades on the obvious tension of whether or not he will be found.
Nor does Bret Anthony Johnston mine other obvious sources of drama such as what his abductor did to him and so on. The police investigation and the inevitable counselling sessions would be the meat and potatoes of many books on these subjects but Johnston treats them as mere tangents to his true interest.
Of course his true interests are the five principle characters, the Campbell family and Eric’s own father, pawn-shop proprietor, Cecil. Often in novels, a favourite character emerges where the story is truly alive when he or she is on the page. It might be that this is the reader’s favourite character but in all likelihood is the writer’s favourite and most has been invested in this characterisation. What is so thrilling and moving about this novel is that the detail is so meticulous, the emotional lives are so brilliantly captured that every character stands out; there is heart and depth on every page.
Johnston’s gift is in how he makes details tell. Griff is a skateboarder, Cecil runs the pawn, Justin has a pet snake. When he is writing about any of them the details actually make some aspect of their lives or feelings actually sing; for instance when Griff skateboards, it is how a studied repetition of a manoeuvre takes him out of himself, or how widower Cecil handles old jewellery hocked in his store.
The physical detail, the narrative detail and the emotional detail are all one and the same in Johnston’s fine writing.
A Raymond Carver poem called Lemonade finds an echo in this novel. In the poem, a father agonises about the accidental death of his son and about a decision to stop for Lemonade he now sees as the first moment in the fatal chain. The awfulness of waking to ‘what if?’ and falling asleep to that same thought is experienced by everyone in the Campbell family. Of course there is the redemptive joy of Justin being restored to them, but his family can’t seem to shake off the guilt. And again, that is set out in the awful specificity of domestic details. The younger brother, Griff, cannot bear to tell anyone that he rowed with his brother for pouring salt into his coke as a practical joke, and refused to forgive him on the day he went missing for four years.
The mother and father have their own terrible guilt too. The novel builds towards the community gathering at their annual Texan Shrimporee, this year celebrating the return of Justin. Johnston interweaves the community desire to celebrate with the family’s deep need to cut off the shackles of their own particular guilt. The emotional intelligence of the novel cuts deep, and reading it is a moving and ultimately uplifting experience.