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Thursday, September 20, 2018

The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld (Reviewed by Will Byrnes)

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Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Enchanted

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: "This is something I know: no matter how far you have run, no matter how long you have been lost, it is never too late to be found. "

Rene Denfield’s first novel, The Enchanted, was a dazzling look into a dark place. It showed that even under the bleakest circumstances life and hope can find a way to make the unbearable into a transcendent experience. No sophomore jinx here. Denfeld has done it again.

There are similarities in core concept between The Child Finder and The Enchanted. Both deal with imprisonment, with imagination as a tool for psychological survival, for transporting oneself beyond one’s immediate chains.

In The Enchanted, The Lady represented death row inmates, looking for the truth in their cases, and ways to keep them from dying. In this story Naomi is The Child Finder, a freelance investigator with a passion and a gift for locating missing kids. Her motivation is pretty clear. She had been taken as a child herself.

On a winter day in rural Oregon, five year old Madison Culver had vanished. Three years on, the authorities have abandoned hope. Having exhausted all other options the girl’s frantic parents call in Naomi. There is no such thing as a cold case for her. She finds a way, discovers the clue everyone else missed, considers things from a new perspective, haunts relevant locations. She is fearless, fierce, and coldly relentless.

The narrative switches between Madison’s and Naomi’s point of view. Madison is held by a man known only as Mr B. We track the development of the relationship between Madison and Mr B. Watch as Madison’s will to survive digs in, as she moves on from victim to actor, from object to powerful player, using her native intelligence and keen observation to give herself at least a chance of surviving. The other tool she uses is her imagination. A favorite fairy tale becomes a mechanism by which she feels hope and a limited sense of freedom even while imprisoned. In talking about The Enchanted, Denfeld addressed a theme relevant to The Child Finder:
"I think the fantastical elements are important, as they show how the narrator copes with being in solitary confinement for so many years. He escapes through his imagination, including astonishing interpretations of his world. I've worked with men and women facing execution, and am often thunderstruck at how humans can persevere despite horrific circumstances." - from the author's GoodReads Q&A
Naomi follows clues in a procedural style, checking with this person, then that, noting oddities, poring through public records and old newspapers, her feel for a trail making some items stand out. She is shown working on another simultaneous case, and we learn of some of her past successes and failures.

Naomi is beset by what she calls The Big Dream, a recurring nightmare that may hold clues to her past. Her investigative prowess has failed so far to let her find out who she really is:

 "As always, after having the dream, she tried to uncover the truth. What part was reality and what part was fantasy? Are the stories we tell ourselves true or based on what we dream them to be?"

Naomi is a powerfully crafted character, a beautifully moving portrait of anguish, strength, and compassion. She recalls her own escape and subsequent upbringing with an amazingly warm foster mother. Her relationship with her foster brother, Jerome, is a core element here, and it sings. Her brief dealings with an older detective seemed far too brief. I hope that when Naomi returns in subsequent volumes we get to see more of him.

As with The Enchanted, Denfeld makes use of her poetic sense, and sparkling command of language, to paint a grim world with great swaths of beauty. And there is considerable darkness here, but graphic unpleasantness is kept to a minimum:
"I feel strongly against graphic violence that is vicarious, or exploitative. After working with so many victims, I feel sensitive to honoring how unspeakable crime can be." - from Rene's GoodReads Q&A
The emotional connections are beautifully written. There is a scene in which a very patient foster mother is finally allowed in by a damaged child. If your eyes don’t gush, it’s time to being to bring them in to your ophthalmologist. Something is not working right.

As with her earlier work Denfeld offers an insightful look at the baddie, a nuanced portrait of a damaged person engaging in unspeakable behavior. This has particular resonance with the death row characters of The Enchanted, an interest not merely in extinguishing the darkness but in understanding how it came to be. We are also treated to some insight into psychological elements of surviving captivity. Denfeld knows a fair bit about such things, as her day job entails investigating on behalf of death row inmates. She is also a foster mother.

In addition to offering keen observation of the world Naomi inhabits, (Naomi ate a large breakfast in the diner, where the waitress no longer called her hon, but nodded indifferently, like she was a local.) The Child Finder offers a rich supply of supporting imagery, concept and insight. The sometimes necessarily porous line between the real and the imagined is considered. As is the virtue and value of patience, whether as a captive, a caregiver, or an investigator. Where does dreaming leave off and memory begin? There is a balance between seeking the lost and hiding out. The earth, the ground, serves as a worthy image here. In one case, an opening in the earth yields a cornucopia of inspirational stones, a sacred place, in another a dark pit fraught with peril. Naomi as a child and Madison are held in subterranean, cave-like places. Naming issues are considered as well. Madison thinks of herself as the Snow Girl from her favorite fairy tale. Her captor is only ever Mister B to her. Even Naomi does not know her real name. What is means to be human comes in for a look. Ironically, Mister B feels more human for having Madison with him than he had felt before. Madison subsumes her humanity at times under her alt-reality fairy-tale persona.

The gripes here are few. There are some moments in which the sentiment expressed seem a bit Hallmarkian. (Her entire life she had been running from terrifying shadows she could no longer see—and in escape she ran straight into life.) There a few of these. In one moment of peril, a rescue seemed a bit deus ex machina for my taste. These small stumbles may keep The Child Finder from quite matching her previous work, but really, can you gripe at Herman Melville for not matching Moby Dick with his next effort? This is still an amazing book.

CONCLUSION: The Child Finder is a beautifully written, gripping page turner, rich with psychological insight, emotional engagement, life-and-death peril, and a memorable cast of characters, rooted in a darkly atmospheric landscape. It is a book that is worth searching for, bringing home, and welcoming into your family.

NOTE: This review was originally posted by Will on Goodreads.



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