THE CHILD FINDER: a page-turning mystery and thought-provoking exploration of suffering and redemption

  

The Child Finder

By Rene Denfeld

HarperCollins Publishers

288 pages, $25.99

Rene Denfeld is a magician. Her debut novel, The Enchanted, was a spellbinding examination of life and redemption on Death Row, written with such poetry and grace that the somber subject matter not only did not weigh down the reading experience but instead actually lifted readers into spiritual territory.

The Child Finder confirms that her first book was no fluke. A snowbound calm pervades this story of Naomi, a private investigator who specializes in locating missing children. Three years earlier, five-year-old Madison Culver disappeared on a trip to choose a Christmas tree in the snowy forests of Oregon. When the official investigation fails to find Madison, her desperate parents turn to Naomi.

While this may sound like the plot of a genre mystery novel, Denfeld’s gifts turn it into something much more. Naomi’s involving search for Madison is also an exploration of her own past, which has one unanswered question: What happened to her in the time before her memories begin with running across a field at night, to be rescued by migrant workers and adopted by an older, single woman?

We know from the start that Madison is alive, the prisoner of a strange, silent mountain man who lives in the most isolated reaches of the Skookum National Forest. Who is he, how has he managed to live there for so many years without being discovered, what explains his kidnapping and imprisoning of Madison (after three years in his ramshackle cabin, it’s clear he does not intend to kill her)? None of the answers are predictable.

The Child Finder is told in dual narratives. One follows Naomi’s search (and its profound effect on her own inchoate memories) and the other depicts Madison’s unusual strategy for coping with her dire situation. Denfeld weaves the two strands tighter and tighter in a manner that put me in mind of both The Lovely Bones and The Silence of the Lambs.

The central question in The Child Finder concerns whether those who are lost can be found, and if so, how. Madison is lost to her parents and the outside world. And the lost child of Naomi’s past remains shrouded in dreamlike memory and self-protective denial. While Naomi seeks “the snow child” Madison, two men – one from her adoptive upbringing and the other from her investigation – attempt to “find” her. But so long as she is lost to herself, she can’t be found by others.

Rene Denfeld has avoided the sophomore slump with a novel that is both a page-turning mystery and a thought-provoking, literary exploration of long suffering and eventual redemption.

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SHINING SEA deftly explores the life of an American family amid a half-century of social upheaval

Shining Sea  Anne Korkeakivi 2016

Shining Sea

By Anne Korkeakivi

Little, Brown & Company: Aug. 9, 2016

276 pages, $26.00


In only two novels, Anne Korkeakivi has become one of my favorite writers. Her debut, An Unexpected Guest, was an unexpected literary delight in 2013, a novel that managed to combine deep insight into characters and relationships, a surprising level of suspense, and supple, sensual prose into a stunner of a book. Much was made of the book’s re-vision of Virginia Woolf’s day-in-the-life classic, Mrs. Dalloway, butAn Unexpected Guest stood on its own two Ferragamo heels just fine.

Korkeakivi returns in August with a completely different sort of novel, a family saga set in varying locales ranging from California and Arizona to the UK and Africa and spanning the years between World War II and 2015. Across five “books” she immerses us in the life of the Gannon family, starting in 1962, when 43-year-old Michael Gannon, a WWII vet, suffers a fatal heart attack while painting the house. He leaves behind his beloved wife Barbara, four children, and an unborn baby girl. Death is the unexpected guest in Shining Sea, which explores the seemingly endless ripples Michael’s death — and war generally — causes in the following decades.

The story moves in leaps and bounds through the years, using key social events to shade in the context of the family members’ lives and effective flashbacks to fill in key details from the intervening years. Barbara holds both the family and the story together with her unfailingly generous spirit. We learn how she and Michael met in a California military hospital when she nursed him through his recovery from the Bataan death march in the Philippines. Their love undergirds the family and the story even long after Michael has died. Korkeakivi uses his death and that of two other characters in and shortly after the Vietnam War to explore the long-term effects of war and the grief experienced at the loss of loved ones.

Korkeakivi moves the plot across time and space as the story shifts focus from Barbara, who eventually remarries, to middle son Francis, a sensitive soul cast adrift by loss. We follow him to Woodstock, seven years after his father’s death, and later to London’s late 60s “groovy” scene and then to the Inner Hebrides islands off Scotland.

Rebellious older daughter Patty Ann struggles with the consequences of repeated poor judgment but gives her mother a grandson whom she adores and who provides light at the end of this often dark novel. Ultimately, the family is spread across the world, from the California coast to the desert of Phoenix (where Barbara’s life is reborn through her marriage to a good but surprisingly complex man), from Europe and Africa to a secluded farm in rural Massachusetts.

Shining Sea reminded me of a compressed version of Jane Smiley’s recent Hundred Years Trilogy (Some Luck, Early Warning, and Golden Age). While the latter covers twice as much time, concerns many more characters, and is written with far more detail, Shining Sea has a similar impact. In particular, the novel surprised me with its emotional punch. I was skeptical that Korkeakivi could write a family saga with serious issues at its core in less than 300 pages, but to a large degree she has succeeded. I cared about the key characters (and still do, as they wander around in my mind). The plot is compelling, with mysteries at the heart of a few subplots, and her prose is seamless and elegant without calling attention to itself.

The key to the artistic success of Shining Sea is Korkeakivi’s ability to move the plot and develop her characters by implication; she displays a deft hand at knowing when to move quickly and allow the reader’s general knowledge to fill in the background and when to slow down and focus on the moments in the characters’ lives that will define them and affect us.

Shining Sea probes the unpredictable and often inexplicable nature of the lives we lead. Barbara gives voice to the novel’s theme when she says, “The thing about life is that it is so damned confusing. Such a web, each piece of it dependent on something else, something that can be as tiny as a smile from a stranger or as huge as heart disease. The good all tangled up with the bad.”

A chat with Rachel Cantor about the writing of GOOD ON PAPER

rachel-cantor-2015-bennett-beckenstein  Good on Paper

Rachel Cantor has been writing stories with her distinctively smart-and-witty voice for several years. They have been published in Paris Review, One Story, Ninth Letter, Kenyon Review, New England Review, Fence, and Volume 1 Brooklyn and have been anthologized, nominated for three Pushcart Prizes, and short-listed by both the O. Henry Awards and Best American Short Stories. But she really burst onto the literary scene with her 2014 debut novel,  A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World (Melville House). Cantor has lived and “worked everywhere from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe (most recently in Nigeria, Senegal, and Laos).” Noteworthy stops included Rome, Melbourne, France, India, and Pakistan. She currently lives “in the writerly borough of Brooklyn but have at various points made my home in most U.S. states between Virginia and Vermont.”

Last week marked the publication of her second novel, Good on Paper, which is receiving rave reviews from mainstream media and bookish publications alike. I spoke to Rachel briefly on January 31.


You balance a compelling drama with wickedly sharp humor and manage to keep it from becoming gimmicky or jokey. The latter leavens the former, as in the best comic relief in fiction of ideas. Where does your skill in doing this come from? Your peripatetic life experiences, your ethnic-religious culture, your muse, strong coffee?

I tend to write voice-driven fiction, and the voice you describe—both serious and comic—is what comes naturally to me, especially (though not only) when writing in the first person. That voice is integral to who I am—part of my personality, even—rather than a skill, per se (though hopefully I also do it well!). So it would be hard to say where it comes from—genetics? stories heard in infancy? experiences on the road? I can say for certain that it’s not coffee, because I don’t drink the stuff (but I wouldn’t want to count out tea!).

Shira’s work on the translation of a Nobel Prize winner’s poem seems like a metaphor that mirrors her efforts to organize and make sense of her complicated personal life. How did the idea of having your protagonist struggle with an Italian poet’s new version of a work by Dante come to you? 

I wrote many stories about Shira before I wrote Good on Paper, so her work as a translator predates the novel. Even if it didn’t, it makes sense that Shira, a one-time expatriate and ex-academic with literary interests, would find herself involved in translation. Also, I really enjoy writing (and reading!) books about work; I’m interested in how a character involves herself in endeavors outside herself and her family. When I decided that a translation project would drive the narrative of this novel, it wasn’t hard to focus on Dante: any Italian poet concerned with his place in the literary canon (as the poet in this book is) would, I assume, want to “take on” Dante. The fact that the poet was interested in Vita Nuova rather than The Divine Comedy makes sense given that he wants to tell a love story, not (merely) a tale of spiritual redemption.

I love the idea of people creating their own families, as Shira and Ahmad do, even though he’s gay and they’re not romantically involved. Together, they provide Andi with stable “parents.” What appealed to you about this subplot?

Again, these characters and interrelationships and fault lines predated Good on Paper, so I didn’t have to create them for this novel. Ahmad already was Andi’s de facto father, they already lived together in Ahmad’s Manhattan apartment. The question instead was: how will the conflicts Shira has historically experienced, both within herself and with others, play themselves out in this book? How can Good on Paper push Shira to her emotional, intellectual, and even spiritual limits? This involved pressuring her relationships, including those with her daughter and best friend Ahmad. Though truth be told, I think their shared Upper West Side apartment, with its many rooms and lovely location, was the product of New York City real-estate wish fulfillment!

Good on Paper is a novel about the power of stories to change lives. How has the reading and writing of stories changed your life?

It’s hard to say how reading may have changed my life, since I can’t remember a time when I didn’t read stories—they determined who I am. Before that, who knows what I was? I started writing stories at a relatively late age (my mid-30s); certainly that changed everything! When I decided to write, to “become a writer,” that forever changed everything important about me—my lifestyle, how I spent my days, the critical choices I made, what I gave up (material comforts, for example), my goals, the people I hung out with. It gave me the focus that has directed my life ever since. As soon as I made that commitment, my life felt aligned for the first time. I’ve never looked back!