For almost as long as she can remember, Carey has lived in a camper van in the heart of the woods with her drug-addicted mother and six-year-old sister, Jenessa. Her mother routinely disappears for weeks at a time, leaving the girls to cope alone. Survival is Carey’s only priority – until strangers arrive and everything changes…
Suddenly, Carey and Jenessa must adapt to the wider world of family, school and boys. But Carey feels trapped by a terrible secret. If she tells, it could destroy her future. If she doesn’t, will she ever be free?
I’ve had If You Find Me on my shelf for a little while, after it arrived as a pleasant surprise from Indigo/Orion. At first, I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy it, as I’ve not read much American-authored Young Adult, comparatively, and I tend to lean towards more male-marketed adventure or stories with an SFF element. However, I needn’t have worried. The plaudits this book has received, including a place on the Waterstones Children’s Prize teen fiction shortlist, are well-deserved.
I was drawn in straight away by the narration, in the voice of main character Carey. She’s sometimes taciturn and suspicious, wary of accepting help and fiercely protective of her younger sister. She’s modest and self-effacing, but keen to do her best in the new world she and Jenessa find themselves in, transported from the bare necessities of the wild woodland. Suddenly, she’s faced with a whole new set of rules, in the brutal and complex habitat of the American high school. As well as trying to negotiate these new social mores, Carey also has a secret she keeps hidden from everyone, including us; it’s apparent there was a traumatic event that has affected her, and Jenessa, deeply, but what that is we have to wait to find out. Carey knows that revealing what occurred could have dire consequences.
Murdoch does a fantastic job creating Carey’s ‘voice’, which grows and develops as the novels goes on. Carey speaks with the slang she’s learned from her mother, isolated as she is in her woodland home. Her phrases and intonation are old-fashioned, although this slowly changes as she socialises with young people her own age at her new school, and also grows more confident. At no point did I feel the storyline, or Carey’s voice, was schmaltzy or overly sentimental. Murdoch’s characters are honest and truthful, and the high school scenes felt fresh and real, despite being a common used setting. Carey’s relationship with her new-found family I found really moving, with the good and the bad depicted without judgement or comment. It’s amazing how, in Murdoch’s hands, something as apparently small as a step-mum buying some new jeans can become such a touching moment than it inspires tears.
Sometimes, YA books that deal with the kind of issues that If You Find Me does, become ‘issue books’, where the narrative is left to one side and the issue at hand, be that family relationships, teen trauma, or abuse, takes centre stage. The risk is that, instead of a gripping story, we’re left with something that preaches a particular set of values or acts as a sort of how-to-cope guide. I think it’s incredibly important that issues are dealt with but that, in fiction, the best way to do that is to make the issue a part of the story and the character’s development. That’s what real life is like; a young person still has to go to school, get on with friends and family, choose what to wear, although the issue may haunt them, as it does Carey, popping up at unexpected moments to disrupt thoughts and ‘normal’ life. Murdoch does this masterfully; sometimes we’re allowed to forget about that evening – whatever it is – and sometimes the idea resurfaces, with all its horrifying implications.
I’m so pleased to say that my expectations were completely defied by If You Find Me. I found it a brilliant read, with engaging characters, a tightly structured plot line and a gripping central thread following Carey and Jenessa. I’d highly recommend it to teen readers and I hope I won’t have to wait too long until Murdoch’s next novel.