This book moves the reader along two timelines for the two main characters, one black and one white, as teenage boys and as adult men in a small town in Mississippi. In each timeline, a teenage girl has disappeared and the white character is suspected of having abducted and killed her. Both timelines move at a pace slow enough to let you absorb the details of the experience of growing up in a small town that thinks it knows what to expect of you.
The charm of the book, apart from its well-crafted prose, is that the reader’s understanding of the connections between past and present shifts constantly as new information emerges. This is more than a plot device, it is an insight into how life works: meaning is emergent, not fixed and truth requires more than a knowledge of the facts before it can be understood. Tom Franklin presents a world in which our character and our past choices shape us but do not determine our path.
Although the disappearance of the two girls is central to the story and the author honours the implicit promise to the reader by providing a satisfactory denouement, this is not, in my opinion, primarily a crime novel. It is a novel about the impact of secrets on those who hold them and those from whom they are withheld and about the impact of judgements on those who make them and those who are judged. It explores fidelity and honesty and the evil that lurk in shadows that we create when we refuse to speak the truth.
The novel has a strong sense of place and a deep insight into the hearts of damaged people. It avoids cliché and sensationalism. It left me with a renewed sense that the future is ours to make provided we are willing and able to acknowledge our past.
This is the kind of book I would like to have seen on the Booker shortlist.