There are some things you can’t leave behind…
A broken-down camper hidden deep in a national forest is the only home fifteen year-old Carey can remember. The trees keep guard over her threadbare existence, with the one bright spot being Carey’s younger sister, Jenessa, who depends on Carey for her very survival. All they have is each other, as their mentally ill mother comes and goes with greater frequency. Until that one fateful day their mother disappears for good, and two strangers arrive. Suddenly, the girls are taken from the woods and thrust into a bright and perplexing new world of high school, clothes and boys.
Now, Carey must face the truth of why her mother abducted her ten years ago, while haunted by a past that won’t let her go… a dark past that hides many a secret, including the reason Jenessa hasn’t spoken a word in over a year. Carey knows she must keep her sister close, and her secrets even closer, or risk watching her new life come crashing down.
You can read an excerpt here.
On the whole, this is a really lovely story. Emotional and hopeful, it celebrates how wonder and joy can survive even the harshest of circumstances.
First off, I loved the soul Murdoch brought to this story. Carey’s narration is just beautiful, with near poetic turns of thought and a dark, seething emotional underbelly. We know immediately, with nary a word of it being spoken, that this girl has survived something terrible, and that simmering trauma creates a lovely tension as, chapter by chapter, we slowly come to understand just what happened in that trailer in the woods. Meanwhile Carey’s shock and wonder at life outside the woods, with all its modern glories (like refrigeration and hot water) is equal parts uplifting and heart-breaking, and that duality is really the heart of this story – happiness battling fear, love battling pain. And watching Carey struggle to accept that good things are still possible for her, even after everything she’s seen and done, makes for a very moving story.
But touching and beautiful as this story is, I also found myself thinking that, in some ways, things were a bit too rosy when it came to Carey’s new life. Her father is wonderful, her step-mother is wonderful, her social worker is caring and involved, her new BFF is fabulous, her new love interest is perfect for her in every way – and of course they all immediately love Carey, seeing as she’s kind and strong and beautiful (model-level gorgeous, apparently) and smart (because even being self-educated out of the random textbooks her Mom brought home, she still manages to test two grade levels ahead of her age), (which made me wonder about her school system, to be honest), and did I mention she’s a violin prodigy besides? It was all just a bit too much, because frankly that much unrelenting goodness is hard to swallow – and while part of me was willing to go with it, because Carey so deserved to be happy, another part of me wanted to see something a bit more real. Take Carey herself – given everything she’s been through, shouldn’t there have been some aftermath, some fall-out from what she’s endured? I kept waiting for her to act out, to freak out or do something wild and self-destructive, because it felt like something should erupt from the weight of guilt and pain she’s carrying – but instead she remains unfalteringly sweet and reliable. And the fact that Carey never once, even in a private corner of her mind, resented her baby sister – who adjusts so easily to her new life, who everyone loves, who suddenly doesn’t need Carey like she used to (despite the fact that Carey raised Nessa all by herself, staring when Carey was just ten) – it felt a bit unbelievable to me. Similarly, wouldn’t Step-Mom maybe have a flicker of resentment at having two strange kids dumped in her lap? And wouldn’t Dad make a mis-step or two in trying to figure out how to handle these two traumatized girls? Honestly my favorite character, aside from Carey, ended up being her bratty step-sister, because there, at least, I felt like we got a real emotional reaction, in that she was pissed. So yes, I do wish just a bit of the overwhelming goodness, a bit of the rosy shine, had been rubbed off this story, because I think the resulting aura of unreality robs it of some of its power.
But still, as I said above, this is a beautiful story and it will get you emotionally involved. And while I anticipated most of the final reveal (the full story of what happened in the woods), it still hit like a sucker-punch, particularly when it came to the details. In the end, watching Carey slowly come to believe that good things are still possible, and that she’s worthy of them, makes for an affirming, uplifting story of hope. And it’s definitely a story worth reading.
Byrt Grade: A-
As Levar Burton used to say – you don’t have to take my word for it…
…the heart of this book is beautiful.
Murdoch’s debut is poetic and beautifully written, and therein lies part of the problem. Carey’s narration wavers between the gaps caused by her isolated upbringing and moments of beyond-her-years brilliance (“handburgers” and fries are a mystery, yet she tests two grades ahead of her age and often delivers lines like, “I duck my head and smile, unmoored by the flood of unexpected emotion”). Add in Carey’s model-level beauty and virtuosity as a violinist, and the novel’s sense of realism takes a hit. That said, Carey and Nessa’s story is memorable and deeply moving, and readers will find it very easy to fall in love with these girls.
The portrait of a teen attempting to navigate a previously unknown world of family and school is well-drawn, especially the tension between Carey and her new stepsister, Delaney, and Carey’s budding relationship with a boy she knew before she disappeared. A compelling narrative that is both unflinching about life’s pain and hopeful about its possibilities.