First of all, some warnings: this is not a review; this is an analysis. If you have not yet read this book, go to Largehearted Boy, link, see the author's soundtrack for the novel, and click on the links to reviews and interviews at the bottom.
And no matter what some other reviewers say, this is not a simple YA novel; it is not even a simple detective story about a search for a missing child; it is noir and a literary look at the darker side of the human condition. When you look into the abyss, it looks back at you and that should make you uncomfortable.
I passed on this book when it came out last year, though the initial reviews were good. Later, after it garnered so many outstanding reviews and award considerations, I earmarked it for reading in October, as a part of my Halloween horrorfest alongside Thomas H. Cook's Red Leaves and Stephen Dobyns' The Church of Dead Girls. I didn't get to it then, and Thanksgiving and the holiday season soon put me into a different reading paradigm.
I read it in January. The work I found myself comparing it to is Nanci Kincaid's marvelous As Hot As It Was You Ought To Thank Me, link, which I reviewed last year. Both novels are narrated by children on the cusp. Both novels involve a child and an adult who vanish mysteriously on the same day, inviting the worst speculations from the community. Both novels are adult and literary and psychological with insightful allusions and Edenic metaphorical symbols.
There are more similarities.
Both novels feature, at one point, a physical sexual situation between an adult and a child. Both authors risked melodrama for the sake of symbol by casting these respective adults as former saviors of their victims. These are cautionary scenes, to be sure, but graphic enough to be alarming and I think that both novels should have been edited better in this one regard. A few oblique nuances would have been enough. Heck, I think they give far too many sensational details on the six o'clock news too, any day of the week.
I also happen to prefer literary noir to graphic noir. That's me, but maybe not you.
Anyway, narrator Lizzie Hood and Evie Verver are thirteen-year-old best friends and neighbors. They're in flux, a state of change, moving between childhood and adulthood--doppelgangers, light and dark. Lizzie Hood is the more diffusely spiritual and virginal one, while Evie is an incarnation of Eve, the more carnal and darkly tempted, the one destined to fall.
The opening chapters are beautifully written, full of literary nuance and symbolic images that almost take your breath away. The likely suspects appear and possible plot threads are foreshadowed, some of them red herrings. The garden hose with its snout, the forked tongue, the blood dripping--sexual symbolism is everywhere. It is all too much for a thirteen-year-old girl to bear, and the author beautifully conveys this sense of being overwhelmed.
As the lush language and nuance drop away, you miss them, but then the plot thickens and it draws you in, convinced by then that this author must know where she's going and it probably won't be the usually cliched places.
The snake in the garden is Mr. Shaw, who knows that he's a snake, who can't help being a snake because that's what he is. Eve's perfect family falls from paradise because of her temptation. In her innocence, she gives herself to the snake, though we know that she is much too young to know what she is doing. Dark? Hell yes, it's dark.
Evie's sister Dusty appears as a Lilith character with an implied, suppressed sexual desire for their father that is Freudian--or perhaps super-Freudian. There is a twinning of father figures and daughter figures. This works on more than one level and makes much of Lizzie's early foreshadowing clearer, though you can take it or leave it depending on your own inclinations.
What happens is what always happens and continues to happen in life as well as myth. The snake self-destructs, but there are other snakes everywhere. Evie falls, losing innocence but gaining knowledge. Lizzie and Evie, once bound, now separate and hopefully move toward autonomy and adulthood.
The novel works on its various levels, as a mystery noir, as an Edenic parable, as a coming-of-age tale of olden days. Over at Largehearted Boy's blog, the author says that her first title for the novel was Nightswimming, which would have been suggestive of what lies beneath the surface here, the psychological rationalizations and projections.
Given the first edition dustjacket art and my interpretation of the novel, perhaps that would be the better title.