The premise of Nicole Trope’s novel is that worst of all parenting scenarios; it’s the one about the good, attentive parents who drop the ball for just a moment and must live with themselves when their 8 year old son Lockie goes missing from Sydney’s Royal Easter Show. The family’s rollercoaster journey through grief, hope and despair is, however, really just a backdrop to the story of Tina, a resourceful street kid who finds herself entangled in the family’s plight.
Tina is 17 and has been on the streets of Kings Cross for almost two years. Her family home was upturned by the death of her younger brother, Tim, whose memory she cherishes and whose company she dearly misses. Her father left the family and her mother’s attention was diverted by an evangelical new partner who helped her find religion to ease her grief. The indifference of Tina’s mother and step-father when she leaves home is in stark contrast to news headlines about the unrelenting search for Lockie, whose parents are plagued by guilt and regret. Tina is a clever girl, whose mind occasionally snaps back to school reports and the advice of teachers who told her she could be anything she wanted to be. Now, sadly, she shares a makeshift home with other troubled kids and has swapped school for the ‘university of life’, where she encounters the extremes of human behaviour on a daily basis.
Tina makes a living as a prostitute and one night when punters are scarce she breaks her Number 1 rule and goes home with a client. In this man’s unnerving apartment, she makes a terrifying discovery – a young boy is tied up under the kitchen table. Her head tells her to take the man’s money and run, but her heart won’t let her leave without trying to help the boy. So, after two years of staying out of trouble, she is thrust into the middle of a major crime investigation and must decide just how far she is willing to go to help the boy’s family find closure.
In spite of its horrific set-up, this novel is not as shocking or emotional as one might expect. That is not to say it is not well-written, but the prose mimics the pragmatic, unshakeable personality of its protagonist and as such does not ask the reader to cry a river. The story is told in alternating viewpoints by Tina, Lockie’s parents, and friends from Cootamundra, where the family lives. The parents, whilst experiencing inner turmoil, must get on with daily life in order to care for their remaining daughter. Lockie’s father’s best mate is the local Police Officer who, while heartbroken for the family, has seen it all before and uses professional distance to cope with his friends’ loss. With all the key storytellers coming from these guarded speaking positions, it can be hard to feel an emotional connection with what they’re going through; unless, of course, you allow yourself to imagine what you would do if it was your own child in question. This emotional distance does alter dramatically when the family finally learns the truth about their son; at this point, I found the parents’ responses touchingly believable and refreshingly free of melodrama.
Other key characters include Tina’s Cross-dwelling friends – hard nuts with hearts of gold who have helped her ‘learn the ropes’ – and a series of generous shopkeepers, café owners and commuters who keep Tina afloat as she journeys from the Cross to Cootamundra with no means of support. I felt Trope was asking the reader to believe in the fundamental goodness of other humans, despite the horror of Lockie’s plight, as each time Tina ‘asks the universe’ to help her out with food or money, a willing stranger comes up with the goods. I found myself waiting for the cleverly disguised bogey man who would ruin Tina’s plans, conditioned as I am by the often hopeless and unresolved plights of characters in much contemporary, forensic fiction. On the whole, however, such monsters don’t appear in this novel, which is ultimately a story of hope, once you move past the awfulness of Lockie’s abduction.
Trope’s novel is, without doubt, a page-turner, which I read in a couple of sittings however the circumstances of Lockie’s disappearance are revealed early in the book and this dimension of the story is resolved with minimal drama. The real meat of this story is in Tina’s journey to find peace with the loss of her brother and to reintegrate herself into a social space where she can truly better herself. She can only do this when she is shown what it means to be part of a family where children are precious and most definitely missed when they are gone.
The Boy Under the Table is published by Allen & Unwin (and I thank them kindly for my copy).
This review will also be listed as part of the 2012 Australian Women Writers reading challenge.