Sunday, 30 March 2014

If You Find Me, by Emily Murdoch

What if the person you thought you were no longer exists? What if your history turned out to be a lie? What if the person you were supposed to trust brought terrible things into your world? What if the place you thought you were safe is the least safe of all?

When she was little, Carey’s mum saved her from her dad. They ran away to hide in the woods – the Hundred Acre Woods, as Carey dubs it – and there they’ve lived ever since. Her mum goes on trips to town, for supplies, to fuel her meth habit, and sometimes she’ll be gone for weeks. So Carey and her little sister Jenessa are used to fending for themselves, hunting and foraging, eating beans from tin cans, wearing second or third hand clothes, lighting fires for warmth. But their mum’s been gone even longer than usual this time, and now the two strangers have arrived: a social worker and Carey’s dad, and they’ve got a letter from Carey’s mum saying she can’t look after them anymore.

Carey cares for one person more than anything else in the world: Jenessa. So when her dad comes, she’s sure that going back with him is the best thing for Jenessa. He seems kind, but she can’t help being afraid, not after what her mum told her. Firstly, though, leaving the woods means a house, a bed, a step-sister and step-mother, school and a 21st century lifestyle that neither of them are used to. Jenessa has never seen television before, ever stood underneath a shower. Carey doesn’t know what a cell-phone is, an iPod, or what the word ‘gross’ means. She misses the woods terribly, but more than anything she’s haunted by the white-star night - the secret that presses down on her shoulders, that scared Jenessa so much she stopped talking, and that Carey knows she can’t hide from forever but will change everything – again – when it’s revealed.

As Carey is forced to question and confront her past, she has to find a way to reconcile the girl from the woods with the girl of today. It’s truly excellent, her voice leaping off the page right from the first paragraph, drawing you in and nudging you forward all the time. At first I assumed that Jenessa would be the one who would have the greatest difficulty adjusting to the new circumstances, but it soon becomes apparent that things will be harder for Carey in the long term, that the differences between her and her peers are more pronounced, that her old worldview and her new worldview will have greater clashes, that finding her new balance will more of a trick than second nature.

Utterly gripping and full of dark secrets, If You Find Me is sad and wonderful, terrible and uplifting, finished and unfinished, Emily Murdoch creating the exact emotional catharsis needed whilst leaving the story open-ended – leaving Carey space to find her way from old girl to new girl, but the readers wondering exactly how the events of the white-star night will be solved. Carey gives us hints – snippets here and there – of the horrible bits of her past, enough to guess as to what the white-star night might contain, but it’s not fully revealed until the end, when she finally finds a way to trust her father and her new life. There are some really difficult subjects in here, but Emily Murdoch tackles them and writes them with real sensitivity and care.

This is my favourite book in the teen category of the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2014 shortlist – it does everything it needs to without even blinking and is really an excellent read; I’m looking forward to seeing what else Emily Murdoch has to offer.

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