The Child Finder – Rene Denfeld ***
Rene Denfeld writes about what she knows, and what she is passionate about is people who have been unjustly subjected to terrible and inhumane treatment. That much was clear from her first novel The Enchanted, which drew on her experience as an investigator on Death Row cases. The author however has also worked on cases of child abductions and sex trafficking victims, so you can imagine that she knows and cares about the subject of The Child Finder. This time however, in her second novel, Denfeld’s writing doesn’t quite live up to the demands of the subject.
In The Child Finder, the investigator is Naomi Cottle, a young woman who works in an unofficial capacity on child abductions when the police authorities have given up and the press have lost interest and moved on to another news story. The parents never give up however and neither does Naomi if she believes that something can be found – good or bad – to put the minds of the distraught parents to rest. Naomi is good and gets results, but that’s because Naomi has personal experience that gives her insight into such cases.
Rene Denfeld weaves a number of threads through The Child Finder that provides a broad view of circumstances that involve child abduction, but she also provides little revealing details, and often details that don’t follow ‘text book’ cases. There are certain behaviours that are common to many child cases of child abduction, but sometimes you have to look beyond the case studies and try to understand the unique circumstances of each case. The case of a 5 year old girl, Madison Culver, who disappeared three years ago in the frozen Oregon wilds would seem to be beyond hope, but Naomi is determined to pursue the case until she has a definitive answer.
Part of the problem I had with The Child Finder is that it felt like there are actually too many other plotlines and perspectives. Aside from Naomi’s investigation into the Madison Culver case, we also get Madison’s first-hand account of her abduction and her attempt to deal with it by turning it into the fairy story of the snow girl. In addition to that, there is Naomi’s own history to consider, a memory-buried origin that sees her brought up by a foster mother Mrs Cottle and her son Jerome. Other past investigations are mentioned in passing, with focus on one particular case of a woman with mental health problems whose story of her missing baby is not believed.
There’s clear justification for bringing a number of very different cases into The Child Finder; it’s a complex subject and it’s necessary to take a wider view of human behaviour in other circumstances. Naomi’s own background is also important to ‘personalise’ what she does, and Denfeld definitely does personal, but i don’t think her writing is able to sustain it this time. The jumping back and forth disrupts the narrative flow and can be very confusing, with you having to backtrack over what you’ve read when you realise you’re no longer where you thought you were.
The problem with the writing in The Child Finder however seems to go deeper than this and it never really touches the deep emotional core at the heart of its cases – which is a problem I never had with the author’s writing in The Enchanted. The methods employed are sound, such as Madison’s distancing herself from her circumstances through fairy tale reinvention, the relevance of Naomi’s own situation and the different kinds of outcomes that other cases deliver, but the necessary distancing employed here by Madison and Naomi also seems to be extended by the author to make all these unthinkable situations somewhat bearable for the reader.
That is perhaps necessary when you are dealing with such a subject, but it means that few of the situations really hit home in the way that Karen Dionne, for example, did recently in The Marsh King’s Daughter. The romantic attractions of the Ranger and Jerome towards Naomi inevitably find that they have a tough barrier to crack through but neither really mesh well into the overall tone of the story. The resolution to the Danita case is also strangely vague and allusive, but more critically, Madison’s situation is untypical and mitigated somewhat by an uncommon kind of abductor. It’s not entirely convincing either that Naomi would be able to find out more in a couple of days in an unfamiliar wilderness than an extensive local police investigation into a child who disappeared three years ago, but you’ll undoubtedly be satisfied that she does.
The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld is published by W&N on 11 January 2018. The eBook edition is available from 5th September 2017.
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