‘The Child Finder’ by Rene Denfeld

My feelings about ‘The Child Finder’ are a little complicated. It’s a book that won me over but mostly because I admired the ethic it was promoting and the empathy with which the characters were drawn. That’s more of an achievement than it may sound.

If this book had come with trigger warnings, I might never have bought it. The content is very raw – a five-year-old girl, found in the woods, being held captive for three years, totally isolated, living in primitive conditions, locked away at night. being threatened, beaten and raped by her silent captor. In most books, that would have been too much for me. I’d have been turned off by the voyeurism of it. I know this stuff happens but I don’t want it in my head.

The rather startling achievement of ‘The Child Finder’ is to cover these events unblinkingly but with no hint of voyeurism. I think this is because the story is told mostly from the point of view of two characters, Naomi Cuttle, the Child Finder and Maddison Culver, the girl who went missing in the snow-filled forest while her parents looked for a Christmas tree.

The story is told, in alternating chapters, along two asynchronous but converging timelines that move with the gentle rhythm of two rivers flowing slowly towards each other.

Naomi tells the story of the present-day hunt for Madison. Madison tells the story of her abduction and captivity from the time that she got lost in the snow. We learn that, as a child, Naomi escaped from captivity and abuse so traumatic that she won’t allow herself to remember it. She is driven and haunted and struggling to build a life beyond searching for missing children.

Madison deals with her captivity by becoming ‘Snow Girl’, a fairytale character brought into being by her captor and telling herself stories that start ‘Once upon a time, there was a little girl called Madison…’ Snow Girl is smart, resilient and determined to make it back to a home she only remembers in dreams.

Each story was told using the third person limited point of view which gave a sort of camera lens, arms-length view of the emotions of both of the main characters. This style of storytelling made it easier to control a slow reveal of information and to increase a sense of foreboding. It was also an effective way of presenting feelings that were being filtered through shock or a self-protective numbness but it did make the characters harder to get to know. It meant that admired both of them but didn’t really get inside their heads.

As the story unfolded and I learned more about Naomi and Madison, I felt closer to them. It was refreshing to have Madison not coming across as a victim, although she is one, but as a strong resilient, intelligent girl making the best sense she can of her world, and to have Naomi, showing patient persistence that was a fine blend of suspicion and hope.

Although ‘The Child Finder’ presents a mystery/thriller and an above-average one at that, it is really using that form to do something different. This book reads like a shared truth about survival from the survivor’s point of view, about the importance of keeping hope alive and the strength needed to do it.
It’s a book about painful things – abused children – lost children – death – loss -guilt – that’s not played for melodrama. It’s neither voyeuristic nor is it sugar-coated. It’s an honest and empathetic look at surviving.

I recommend the audiobook version of ‘The Child Finder’ performed by Alyssa Bresnahan. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.


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