Monday, February 10, 2020

A new small-town thrill ride

My Friend Nick by Joseph Hood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars ///  This is a very impressive debut novel that does triple duty. It's a family drama, it's a suspense/thriller, it's a character study of a mother and daughter relationship, and, added to all that, it is an interesting portrait of a town. Reviewing this is hampered by my desire not to spoil any of the delicate threads that hold it together. I'm more enthusiastic about My Friend Nick than what follows might indicate for that reason.

The family at the center of this drama is in a serious state of entropy.  The mother, left alone to cope with her rebellious daughter, is coming apart at the seams. The father, away on business, is unaware--because the wife is keeping secrets--of how bad things are. The young girl, restless, resentful, and missing her father, is clearly going to be a centrifical problem from page one. One of the interesting plot devices concerning the daughter is that expectations are built in the reader that the little girl has enough spunk to cope with whatever bad thing is around the next corner; that idea is completely upended by the author when the little girl's excessive spunk turns out to be a major causative factor in the chain of problems that follow.

This is not a book where a lot happens until the slope up to the final act, but make no mistake, there is not a dull moment. The pace of the story is a great advantage when so much of the interesting detail is invested in the traumatic past of the mother and the father. In other words, a lot has already happened previously. Clearly, knowing so much about the backstory, this is a family to which victimization is no stranger. Genetically, the daughter is primed to take on any monster hiding in the neighboring cornfield. This she does, with unexpected results. Here's where I have to hold back on detail and allow the book to do its own talking.

The measured pace allows the author to display his talent at character and scene development. The town seems very real and the populace is enjoyably quirky. The little girl's adventures beyond her allowed perimeter are very nicely and realistically done. The antagonist is very creepy and very believable.  One of the great things the author adds to the pot is that the history of the central family is troubled, the history of the town is troubled, and the history of the creepy, evil antagonist's family is troubled.  This is a scenario where things are going to take a dark turn because that's the only outcome possible with such histories in constellation.

I am not going to tell you more than the following, which are logical conclusions any reader might come to: the mother's psychological problems are bound to increase in the absence of her husband, the girl's rebelliousness is bound to increase in the absence of her father, and the antagonist's socio/psychopathic behavior is bound to escalate in the absence of anyone to stop it.

If you like studies of small-town good/evil (recalling some aspects of In Cold Blood) this is a good place to get an unsettling read. Recommended for excellence in this genre.

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