The Nowhere Child by Christian White
In Melbourne, 30 year old photography teacher Kim Leamy is approached by a stranger who shows her a photo of a young girl, with deep blue eyes and a mop of shaggy black hair. 28 years ago two-year-old Sammy Went disappeared from her family home in Manson, Kentucky in the US. No trace of her was ever found but there was always the thought that she was abducted - not killed as originally feared. This stranger believes that Kim is Sammy, and THE NOWHERE CHILD is the story of what happened to Sammy Went, what it did to her family, and what the accusation will now do to Kim Leamy, her much loved stepfather Dean and her half-sister.
It's worth noting that THE NOWHERE CHILD was the 2017 recipient The Victorian Premier's Unpublished Manuscript Award. Then named DECAY THEORY for reasons which are explained in the book, this is proving to be an award worth following very closely, past recipients including THE ROSIE PROJECT by Graeme Simsion, FOREIGN SOIL by Maxine Beneba Clarke, FEVER OF ANIMALS by Miles Allinson, THE DRY by Jane Harper and AUSTRALIA DAY by Melanie Cheng.
Back to THE NOWHERE CHILD though, and there's something in this stranger's story that triggers a response in Kim. Although her mother died four years ago, there is something in her stepfather's reaction that bothers her. There's something in the story that this American tells that bothers her, and there's more that he brings to the table that sends her to America and the truth. It will come as no surprise to many readers that White has a background in cinematic writing as whilst this is really a character driven thriller, there's something visual about the settings, and the way that the focus is constantly pulled forward, through a rapidly twisting and turning plot, with even the expected revelations handled elegantly, never once letting the reader relax and assume too much.
Taking Kim from Australia and a safe, and known family life; into the world of a conflicted and torn apart other family, where there are secrets upon secrets, built into small town prejudice, driving by a seriously bizarre Pentecostal sect called the Church of the Light Within whose members handle rattlesnakes, believing that their connection with God comes from dancing with, handling, and even being bitten by the snakes. The plot effectively carries two timelines - the present and Kim's search for the truth, and the events around Sammy's abduction - the effect it had on the Went family, the parents and the two remaining children, and on the small town of Manson Kentucky, already struggling with divisions between the majority sect followers and outsiders - some of whom, like Sammy's family, have moved away from the sect - hating what they do and what they stand for.
The final twists and turns, when they arrive work, and even if you have guessed at the possible outcome, are still moving, sad and uplifting all at the same time. THE NOWHERE CHILD is pointed commentary on fundamentalism of all persuasions, and a good reminder that the past doesn't always go quietly.
‘Her name is Sammy Went. This photo was taken on her second birthday. Three days later she was gone.’
On a break between teaching photography classes, Kim Leamy is approached by a stranger investigating the disappearance of a little girl from her Kentucky home twenty-eight years earlier. He believes she is that girl.
At first Kim brushes it off, but when she scratches the surface of her family background in Australia, questions arise that aren’t easily answered. To find the truth, she must travel to Sammy’s home of Manson, Kentucky, and into a dark past. As the mystery unravels and the town’s secrets are revealed, this superb novel builds towards a tense, terrifying, and entirely unexpected climax.
Inspired by Gillian Flynn’s frenetic suspense and Stephen King’s masterful world-building, The Nowhere Child is a combustible tale of trauma, cult, conspiracy and memory. It is the remarkable debut of Christian White, an exhilarating new Australian talent attracting worldwide attention.