Monday, January 30, 2012

Cemetery Girl / by David Bell

"Let me tell you something about my daughter."

The day Tom Stuart's daughter disappeared is what he replays most in his mind. 12-year-old Caitlin had taken the dog for a walk, something Tom and wife Abby had agreed was a good responsibility/privilege, and hadn't come back. What unfolded in the following days, weeks, months and eventually years was a classic suburban disaster story. Frantic searches amped up by media coverage and community panic gave way to fruitless leads followed by inconsequential suspects and an ultimate withdrawal of investigators from the case. The grieving couple's marriage then began to dissolve, Abby thinking it time to move on and Tom not ready to give up hope. After four years, Abby does move on, organizing a memorial service to declare Caitlin legally dead, even giving her a burial plot; Tom doesn't even attend for much of the ceremony and Abby starts to move out of the house later that day. But then, only a little while later and nearly at random, Caitlin's found--alive. Discovered by police after some new information surfaces, a teenage Caitlin reappears, disheveled and malnourished, but breathing and at least physically alright.

The miracle isn't quite as luminous as Tom envisioned. His daughter is home and safe and, at least for the time being, the family is back together, but the situation is far from stable. Caitlin isn't talking. It's not as if she's incoherent or uncommunicative, she's just not saying what happened, even requesting a stay of questions concerning all that's gone on. And though Tom still can hardly fathom that his daughter might've actually have been a runaway rather than a kidnapping victim, the thought lingers, becoming, while not quite the whole truth, a notion intermingled with what actually went down. To say the least, his daughter's disappearance, time away and awkward reappearance has done Tom's own well-being no favors. His psyche's shot, his mind plays tricks on him (Or does it?). He may be seeing things that aren't really there and the reckless way he's gone about trying to find answers--both before and after Caitlin's return--has only served to alienate his wife, discredit his convictions and complicate his relationships with the law enforcement officials who are still searching for "the guy", the man his daughter won't tell him about and the one person ("a bastard to be sure") who holds the key to everything.

Perhaps if it weren't for the cover which lends this book a less original flavor, giving it more of a YA feel, Cemetery Girl could've taken off at a level similar to Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones, In the Woods by Tana French or even an earlier Stephen King. And even though the novel and its author have gotten their due credit from the people who truly matter, the book is a still something of an underground phenomenon, not quite mainstream. The praise is certainly warranted. It's not just the story--a taut blend of well-conceived realism and subtly imbedded cliffhangers--that pushes things forward, climax to climax, revelation by revelation, but the densely layered psychological adventure steadily creeping toward a crescendo. Tom Stuart lost something he will never get back, even when he does technically get back the thing that he lost. Nothing seems to satisfy the deepest ache of his soul, a soul still tormented by an under-nurtured past and unsettled family history. Even finding a solid lead, his child, then the perpetrator, and ultimately justice can't quiet his desire for the truth of why his daughter may have preferred another life. This can portray him as not an all-the-way likeable character; easy to identify with, but not totally sympathetic. As the ultimate pitiable victim, a parent who's lost a child, he doesn't earn a lot of brownie points for the way he brazenly points the finger (about more than one thing), first at the police, then his wife, his half-brother, the kidnapper . . . going the whole round before finally getting to himself. Nor is he shy about acting on impulse and taking the law into his own hands. But can you blame him? Bell thinks that maybe you can, to a degree. It's a hard sell, to be sure, this re-fabrication of natural reactions of a parent to their own child's kidnapping. But it's the key to the story's true success, almost a de-victimization of the injured party whereby a heinous, truly abominable injustice wrought on an undeserving family, heaped on top of which is the maddening reluctance of those in charge and the dissolution of a marriage, is twisted around in thoroughly believable fashion, creating a story about the tenuous balance between paternal love and obsessive control all tied up within a damaged, driven man. (FIC BELL)

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