The Last Child, John Hart, Minotaur Books, $24.95.
This January one of the VPs at St. Martin's, Matthew Baldacci, asked if he could swing by the store with author John Hart. I had enjoyed Hart's first book King of Lies and enthusiastically agreed—just as enthusiastically, Matthew offered to fedex me copies of Hart's new book, The Last Child. The book arrived on a Wednesday afternoon for a Thursday visit—I trundled into the store to pick it up, hoping I might get at least half way through before Hart stopped in—and I couldn't put it down. I was finished with the book Thursday morning, eager to have a chance to discuss it with the author.
There are few things I enjoy more about bookselling than watching an author get even better, which is the case with this book, one that is tighter than the preceeding books but at the same time is wider in scope. 2009 has only just started, and I think I have already found a contender for next year's top 10 list. All of Hart's books are standalones, so no need to start with the first one (though it's well worth a read). This novel is about thirteen year old Johnny Merrimon, who is obsessed by the disappearance of his twin sister a year ago. As his family has self destructed—his father has disappeared, his mother is lost in a fog of drugs and alcohol, and dating an abusive man—Johnny is left to fend for himself, and one of the things he's chosen to do it to get on his bike, map in hand, scouring likely neighborhoods where his sister might have vanished. There are red “x's” all over the map, sometimes with the notation, “Bad men live here”.
As Johnny works on his guide, he's shadowed by Detective Clyde Hunt, who is almost as haunted by Johnny's sister as Johnny himself. His life has taken an almost equally self destructive turn, as he's gotten divorced, become estranged from his teenaged son, and gotten on the thin side of legal behavior at work. While Johnny feels alone, he has an ally in both Hunt and his somewhat wayward friend Jack, who helps sometimes when Johnny is off with his map and his bike.
One of the many remarkable things about this book is the fact that though it's told through the lens of a 13 year old boy—and they are certainly complicated creatures—it never feels either condescending or false. Johnny is a very believable flesh and blood character, and often his desperation and desire to find his sister pulls you through the narrative, though you may know in your gut what the probable outcome will be. Hart manages to both maintain suspense and to describe Johnny's landscape so fully, fleshed out with the other people and situations that surround him, that sometimes looking up from this book is almost jarring. Hart has put you in Johnny's world that completely.
When you finish, the characters and story have a real hold on both your brain and your heart—two important things for a good writer to get ahold of, and Hart is a very good writer. He also writes beautiful prose, complete with motifs—in this book the motif is a raven (sometimes ravens plural), which adds an occasional extra note of both poetry and atmosphere. There's really not too much more to ask for in a good book and I don't expect to read too many finer books this year.
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