What is this about?: On an ordinary day, on an ordinary break between classes, a man approaches Kim and tells her that her life as she knows it is a lie.
What else is this about?: Family. The bonds you make and the bonds you are born with.
‘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.
The Nowhere Child begins as I mentioned on an ordinary day for Kim. She’s on a break between classes when a man approaches her and tells her that she is in reality a kidnapped child from the US, Sammy Went. Which is a bit of a stretch, given Australia is about as far away that you can get from the US.
Kim doesn’t believe him, but he has proof, and she can’t not believe his story. Her sister Amy advises her not to do anything, not to give anything away to this strange man, because she doesn’t want to quite believe it. But, when her father confirms the story, Kim is devastated and goes with the man, Stu, to the US.
Family is everything
Kim is a little bit lost before Stu arrives in her life, with a story about her kidnapping. She hesitates telling her half-sister about it, because I got the sense their relationship could be stronger, but they are family. Amy is interesting because she’s wrapped up in her own life, but the minute Kim tells her what happened, she is focused on Kim, on this man and this story breaking their family apart. They’ve lost their mother to cancer, and it’s just them and their dad.
I liked that their subsequent reactions are kind of antagonistic as they try to deal with Stu’s revelations, and I especially like that when Kim has his story confirmed she reacts in a realistic way too. She makes a rash decision to go with Stu to the US, to meet her sister and parents there.
When family is nothing like you expect
The Nowhere Child has dual timelines, one in the present in Australia and the US as Kim explores her family, and in the past, in the aftermath of her abduction and her US family’s reaction. It’s such a contrast, for as much as the present timelines shows that Kim’s Australian family has their issues, they love her and are worried for her. Her US family is more complex – for one thing, they belonged to a cult.
We learn that her mother was a believer, the kind that lived her life according to the cult leader above all else – even her children – but her father had begun to break away from the cult. Sammy’s kidnapping highlighted the chasm between them to the point that her parents couldn’t ignore their differences any longer. Her sister was a young teen, self-absorbed but doesn’t realise it like most at that age. The difference is most tend to grow out of it. Sammy’s brother was just a kid, being shaped by her kidnapping even though he didn’t realise it.
In the past timeline, White begins to build a cast of characters that all have something to hide, even as they pretend to search for Sammy in the days after her kidnapping. I will say, that depth and care given to these characters in the past is something I hoped to see in the present, in Amy and Dean (their father), for instance. Their presence is no less powerful in this story, but for once it was the past timeline, characters and family dynamics that had me enraptured.
It’s clear how the past affected the present versions of these people that Kim visits, and White subverts the expectations readers might have of family reunions.
So what did happen to Sammy Went?
Well you’re going to have to read the book to find out, because that ending? To say that it was unexpected would be an understatement.
Christian White is a restrained writer, not taking the expected route in a book like this, which makes the end result all the more compelling.