The Quiet Child: A Novel
“Read The Quiet Child for the absorbing story, strong characterizations, and entertaining writing.”
“Broken things can hurt people. They need to be fixed, or they need to be put away.”
Six-year-old Danny is broken in the eyes of his town, or so John Burley tells us in his latest novel, The Quiet Child. So it’s a shock but not a surprise when Danny disappears from the parking lot, along with his older brother, Sean, and their father’s car.
When they disappear, their sleepy California town is torn: Should they support the boys’ frantic parents, or should they celebrate the absence of the small boy that many suspect of carrying illness and sorrow in their midst?
The McCray family is no stranger to tragedy: they have lost an uncle, an aunt suffered from breast cancer and never quite recovered, and the boys’ mother is slowly wasting away from Lou Gehrig’s disease. In a town that is sitting atop a watershed and alongside a river that are being slowly polluted by chemical dumping, illness would not be a huge surprise in 2017; however, this novel takes place in 1954.
Burley uses increasingly targeted language to reveal the town’s suspicion that little Danny McCray is somehow responsible for their misery, progressing from the oblique, “that was how it was with Michael’s son, as if his silence gave the people a right to ignore him,” to the introductory quote from the town sheriff’s wife. By the end of the book, the townspeople lay their distrust out plain: “There are people who say this family is poison.”
Given that thought process, it is no surprise when the initial car theft becomes suspicion of kidnapping for a nefarious purpose. Burley’s narrative follows the line of many of the current crop of bestsellers, with several twists to entertain the reader. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Burley is largely successful in his work. The main twist is fairly surprising and well supported with foreshadowing and believability.
Burley has also created characters who are by turns tragic and infuriating. The McCray parents are people on the edge, worn out from years of illness and worry, particularly about Danny and his total aphasia (thus making him “the quiet child”). He does a strong job with both Danny and Sean, as well, making them both normal American kids, with the requisite language and thought patterns. It is surprisingly uncommon to find such well-written child characters in current fiction.
The world of 1954 California comes alive under Burley’s skillful pen; he seems to take a glee in Michael McCray’s early shopping expedition, in which $1.82 for two cartons of ice cream, coffee, sugar, and a newspaper was enough to make Mr. McCray stare. The cars, the clothes, and especially the phones (who remembers operators who had to make physical connections?) are detailed lovingly, evoking a wonderful sense of place and time. Most importantly, he’s taken the time and research to avoid anachronisms.
Burley has done a neat job of creating suspense and intrigue in this exciting, fast-paced novel. In less than 300 pages he builds a world that is unfamiliar to many contemporary readers, skillfully sketches a family and a town, details a kidnapping and the subsequent actions, and wraps it all up at the end.
He has a lot to say about the superstitions and prejudices of small town life, and makes a strong case for watershed protection. Despite the fears of a small-minded town, it’s not the McCray family alone that suffers: Mr. McCray notes later that, “(he) had almost forgotten about the air of sickness that permeated this place.”
And there lies the single, fatal weakness of this nearly entirely well-written and entertaining suspense novel: the denial of the case made throughout the book for tragic result of the town’s prejudices and a family’s fears being human-created. The last four disappointing pages of this otherwise well-written novel bring a final, wholly unsupported and unbelievable twist, changing not only the story itself but the genre in which it rests. Though it is not enough to ruin all enjoyment in the story, it brings a wrenching story to a shuddering halt, and not in a good way.
Read The Quiet Child for the absorbing story, strong characterizations, and entertaining writing. Just skip the last four pages and their infuriatingly silly final twist. You will still have had a great read without them.