The good: Very, very intriguing with emotions running high.
The not-so-good: I really felt for the characters who couldn’t be heard because of their age, sex, colour or class.
Why I chose it: January is the perfect time to try a new author, thanks Penguin for the prize!
Pages: 322 (ARC)
Publisher: Bantam Books (Penguin)
Rating: 9 out of 10
A case of potential mistaken identity is the main thread in Kirsten Alexander’s debut novel, Half Moon Lake, but don’t be misguided in thinking that this is all that it’s about. This novel is skilfully woven with themes of class, race and sex discrimination. It’s also the story of a family once whole, broken by a dramatic event and a desperate attempt to repair the hole that remains. It’s an incredibly strong debut that left me thinking about this book for weeks afterwards.
You might be forgiven for judging Half Moon Lake by the cover and thinking it a moody thriller. Yes, there are police involved in this case of a missing child and secrets running throughout the family involved but this is so much more sensitive and nuanced. The story reflects on how people react in different ways to tragic events, some accidental and some deliberate. Half Moon Lake is inspired by the case of missing child Bobby Dunbar. In the story, Sonny Davenport goes missing while playing with his brothers. His mother Mary blames her husband John Henry for letting them play alone. She blames the nanny for having a day off. In a way, she blames herself.
Trying to find a missing child is very different in 1913, with no social media or helicopters to assist in a search. Sonny’s disappearance makes headlines for months in the Davenport’s small town, with reporters camped out on the front lawn. One of them will try nearly anything to get close to the family. Meanwhile, Mary is distraught and retreats into herself. Her husband spends a great deal of time following up dead ends. Two years later, there is a potential breakthrough. A boy who looks like Sonny has been seen with a tramp. But is the boy Sonny? Or is he Ned, mute son of single mother Grace? Both mothers are certain the child is hers, and the trial of the tramp just became a lot more loaded as everyone in town has an opinion.
Half Moon Lake had me eager to turn the page and learn more about the story, particularly as the trial started. There was so much at stake for both Grace and the Davenports. Having the deck stacked unfairly thanks to the Davenport’s wealth only made things tauter. I felt for Mary, I felt for Grace but most of all I felt for Sonny/Ned. The story wrung out a lot of emotion as to what is just, fair or right and the differences between each of them. The boy is marginalised here, as others fight for him without asking his thoughts. It’s only the other Davenport children who investigate this! Likewise, other characters who know more of what’s going on are ignored. This includes the Davenport’s African-American housekeeper, Esmeralda, who loses her reputation and livelihood to seek out the truth and Grace, as she’s poor and a single mother. These people don’t have a voice in this world of white men. Even Mary, from her position as a rich white wife, is barely listened to past her pivotal claim that Sonny is hers.
The narrative starts off in a dreamlike state, but the mist soon clears as the frenzy for Sonny picks up. I felt that the courtroom scenes were the strongest – I haven’t been this intrigued since the early John Grisham novels! I’m looking forward to Kirsten’s second novel, Everything You Want in 2020, which sounds like it will be full of mystery and a giant secret.