With cover quotes from Kevin Power, Philipp Meyer and Jenni Fagan there was no way I was not going to read this. Throw in a rave review from John Harvey describing it as the best novel he’s read since Peter Temple’s Truth and it was practically drop everything to read this book. And everything they said about this book was true and then some.
Set in Montana in the early 1980s the main character of the novel is Pete Snow, a social worker who covers a large swathe of territory across a number of semi-rural communities. It is Pete’s job to step in when things go wrong in families although that didn’t stop his own family falling apart. Pete’s wife Beth has left him taking their daughter Rachel and they are not living in the best environment to raise a teenage girl. Meanwhile Pete’s efforts to get a child away from his mother and into a good home unravel at every turn. When an eleven year-old-boy, who has been living off the grid with his father, wanders into the local school Pete is determined to help in any way he can.
Pete is drawn into the boy and his father’s world. A world of paranoia and distrust of authority. A world dominated by survival and nothing else. And as Pete slowly wins their trust he discovers secrets and lies that will rip open wounds and leave fresh scars for all involved.
Smith Henderson tells Pete’s story with tender power and fierce precision presenting a man who in spite of his flaws is determined to help those in need. What makes Pete’s story more tragic is the plight of his daughter. We get her side of the story in short, sharp vignettes at the end of chapters in a series of interview questions answered in the third person which gives Rachel’s story a detached and melancholic quality which, as we learn more, tragically becomes more and more apt.
I was totally enthralled and enraptured by this book. From the subject matter, to the structure, the characters and the language this is an astonishing debut. Smith Henderson manages to combine the raw intensity and emotion of Philipp Meyer with the haunting descriptions and beautiful language of Kevin Powers while delving into the dark shadows of society in a deeply personal and confrontingly honest way like Jenni Fagan. This is a very close contender for my book of the year.