‘The Homecoming’ by Alan Russell

‘The Homecoming’ was an unusual journey. It’s a narrative that didn’t go where I expected it to or via the route I expected it to take but which provided me with something quite different to think about.

Here’s my précis of the publisher’s summary:

‘Seven years ago, young Stella Pierce vanished from the face of the earth. Her grieving, broken family and the policeman became obsessed with looking for her, are stunned by her mysterious return. The now-teenage girl claims to have spent her missing years in the company of Travelers – extraterrestrial nomads – voyaging through space.’

That is what the book is about but not in the way I expected it to be.

I’d expected something like Graham Joyce’s ‘Some Kind Of Fairy Tale’ where the novel focuses on whether the returning girl can be believed.

At the start of the book, I allowed myself to be distracted by my expectations of a thriller. Everything in the story worked but I felt the pace was off. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. Then, it dawned on me how sad my own reaction was.

This was a story about a family that has had their happiness, their ability to function, taken away when the seven-year-old daughter disappeared into the night. Yet I was impatient with the grief and the anger and the endless but pointless searching. Part of my reaction was because this was supposed to be a story about a girl who goes missing for seven years and then comes back and I wanted to get to that But part of it was that the story of a girl vanishing and her family being devastated is so ordinary, so familiar, that I’ve become desensitised to it.

I’m saddened and a little ashamed that, when the story reached the twenty-five per cent point and the girl had not yet returned I just wanted the author to get on with it.

Yet he’d shown me a mother whose will to live had been destroyed, a father who’d channelled his grief into becoming a Law And Order politician, a son whose childhood had been so over-protected that he had grown up reckless and at an emotional distance from his parents, and a policeman who had spent seven years in an obsessive search for a missing girl that he feels he has failed. The descriptions were empathetic without being clichéd or saccharine. They felt real. So what was my impatience about? Wasn’t this worth spending some time on?

I’d just checked my reaction and tried to settle into the story that the author wanted to tell when everything changed. Stella, the missing girl, came back. But there was more to it than that. A whole thriller’s-worth of more to it. Suddenly, the seven year absence became necessary to the plot. I could see that it was important that the missing girl’s father had become a Congressman and that the detective had grown to know the family. I was pleased finally to be able to bite on the hook the story was sold on. but mostly, I was impressed that this novel wasn’t just a clever idea supported by plot-required roles but a story with hard to accept elements that was grounded in a difficult but very credible reality.

The story changed again when I met Stella. She becomes the centre of a lot of classic thriller activity. She is stalked by a predator, surveilled by an anonymous black ops team and sent to sessions with a psychiatrist who is following a script given to him to ensure Stella is discredited. Yet it is Stella’s viewpoint that captured most of my attention. She is at once a likeable fourteen-year-old-girl coming back to her family and someone with a deeper understanding and broader expectations that she’s not certain people are ready to hear.

The ending of the story wasn’t what I expected. It didn’t quite deliver on the implied promise of the thriller. There were too many loose ends and unexplained players, just like in real life in fact. The emotional conclusion of the novel is more interesting and more important to the book as a whole. There is a wonderful scene towards the end that seems to be set up to become another ‘Carrie’ but goes somewhere else entirely.

I was happy with the surprises that ‘The Homecoming’ threw my way. I’m glad to have met Stella and I can live with not having all the answers – there’s nothing new in that.

I listened to the audiobook version of ‘The Homecoming’. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.

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