"Tall Oaks" Chris Whitaker
This is a great debut - that reads with the accomplishment and finesse of a much more established writer- set in small town America where 3 year old Harry has gone missing. Although the mystery of his disappearance is the main strand of the story, it is actually more a vehicle around which Whitaker can explore the different lives of the inhabitants. As the town works to uncover the truth behind Harry's disappearance, further lies, hidden pasts, secret ambitions, obsessions, relationships and all the other fascinating stories behind the people that live there, are revealed through wit, humour, pathos and empathy. As the blurb promises, this really is a "dark yet hilarious, suspenseful and sad" read.
The writing is vivid, engaging, lively and full of great dialogue and action. The book opens with the harrowing disappearance of Harry and the palpable grief of his mother Jess. Jim, the detective in charge of the case, is clearly deeply affected by the event as well. We are then, with each new chapter or section, introduced to more characters, each with their own complications. There is a lot to keep up with at the beginning and although a little overwhelmed, I was compelled to read on as I wondered how the threads were related and how they might converge as the novel progressed. Whitaker sets a healthy pace; the short chapters and alternating voices make it a very filmic read. Some of the characters bring humour and entertainment which counteracts the sadness of Jess's loss and the intensity of the narratives from her and Jim. There is a good balance.
Whitaker's ability to evoke such a range of scenarios is commendable. His presentation of small town America and the characters within it are completely convincing. Tall Oaks should be a picture perfect town with perfect white picket fences yet Whitaker manages to unnerve the reader with a prevailing sense of foreboding. His sense of location is very clearly established and it is easy to relate to all the characters whether they are likeable or not, vulnerable or strong. Reading this book was like binging on a box set. Other reviewers have compared it to "Fargo", "Twin Peaks" and "The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair". It certainly has that quirky, original, gripping feel. Personally it also felt to me like a rather dark version of "Desperate Housewives"!
Once half way through, I found the novel picked up further in pace and drama. I really enjoyed the story of Jerry and his mother - Whitaker's depiction of madness and control was purposefully despicable, unpleasant and shocking. Then Jim's obsession with Jess gave Whitaker an opportunity to explore the complex emotions of a police officer who gets over involved in a case. It certainly was a case of "just one more chapter..." (or "one more episode"!)which has always been my downfall and the true sign of a great book!
This book follows characters at transitional points in their lives; a time of challenging personal choices, change and new starts. Tall Oaks is a place which means different things to different people, whether it's somewhere to hide or somewhere to run from, a place of safety or a place of threat. It is compulsive rather than gripping, full of hard punches but not shocking. It has elements of a comedy, a thriller, a police procedural novel and lots of drama. The ending was absolutely suburb. Amazing. It was so well executed.
At the end of the novel, Abe says to Manny as they prepare to move on in their lives, it's the "end of an era". That's definitely how I felt when I (reluctantly) turned the last page.
I would highly recommend this book. But don't just take my word for it. Lesley Allen's review on Goodreads really sums it up:
This may be Whitaker’s debut novel, but it’s quite clear he’s a natural. His writing sparkles with wit, passion, pathos and hope, and there isn’t a word out of place. The narrative is jam-packed with twists and turns, shocks and surprises, with gasps aplenty – and the denouement provided me with one of the most outstanding ‘I didn’t see that coming’ moments from any book I have ever read.
I bought this book myself after reading about it on Twitter and thought the front cover was appealing.