It’s always tricky to review a book which relies on suspense. Do I skirt around the meat of the story and just lay out a few themes and concepts? Or do I tell all with a ‘spoiler alert’? For Charity Norman’s Second Chances, I’m going to pick the former because I so enjoyed the long, slow ‘reveals’ in this story, which keeps you guessing right up to the emotional climax.
The story opens with a tragedy: 4 year old Finn lies in intensive care having fallen from the verandah of the family home. His mother, Martha, is by his side, explaining to the hospital staff the circumstances of this terrible accident. Gradually, however, aspects of the story don’t seem to add up. Social workers and medicos begin pushing Martha for more information than she is willing to give. Was it really just an accident? Or is this another one of the many secrets Martha has become accustomed to keeping? The novel zigzags between the hospital scene and episodes from the past and present which build a picture of a family moving inevitably towards heartbreak.
Martha, with husband Kit, teenage daughter Sacha, and twins Finn and Charlie, have recently moved from England to rural New Zealand. Finn’s dramatic rescue by helicopter in the dead of a winter’s night was nothing they ever imagined might be a part of the escape to a new life in paradise promised by emigration. Leaving behind the collapsed family business and some embarrassing incidents brought about by Kit’s intermittent alcoholism, the McNamara family seek a new start in a far away land where life is more affordable, employment more available and where no one can press them on the secrets of their past. Unfortunately, their family dream becomes more like a nightmare.
One of the first lessons to be learned from Norman’s evocative text is appropriate to the New Zealand context: in the words of Crowded House, “you always take the weather with you”. Martha, Kit and Sacha all suffer their own challenges with mental health, self-esteem, addiction and regret – and these things do not simply disappear because of a change of address. Secondly, secrets rarely stay hidden forever and often, in fact, reveal themselves in the worst possible time and place.
I found this novel slow to get started, but once I got to know the McNamaras, I was hooked. Martha is very real – overprotective, a little judgemental, but wanting the best for her family. The rest of the family is similarly well-drawn, with Sacha particularly recognisable as a troubled teen: one moment her mother’s closest ally, the next a petulant misfit with secrets of her own. One of the mysteries unveiled early in the novel is that Sacha has never known her real father (Kit is the twins’ father, but Sacha’s stepdad), and her typical teen identity crisis is compounded by the spectre of this missing man. She is the one member of the family who never wanted to move away, and her difficulties in adjusting threaten to render her mother forever regretful of the move.
This poignant family drama is certainly a ‘page-turner’, dropping just enough hints about the real story of Finn’s fall to keep the plot motoring towards its touching conclusion. In addition, it paints a fascinating picture of life in New Zealand – where the language, the architecture and the myths and legends tell a much bigger story of migration, dispossession and conflicting loyalties. Norman’s novel asks us to question the notion of second chances, as Martha tries to force her family into a ‘second’ lease of life, whilst the ghosts of the past make their own reappearances, time and again. The publisher likens this novel to the work of Jodi Picoult and Caroline Overington; it is a moving, character-driven saga which takes the reader on a journey of the heart. It will resonate strongly with parents of teens, I think, but anyone who has ever experienced family turmoil may recognise something of themselves in the McNamaras.
AND you can WIN 1 of 5 e-books of Second Chances this week! Simply follow This Charming Mum (RSS, email, Facebook, Twitter … you know the drill) and leave a comment below. If you can’t think of anything to write, just say ‘pick me!’ And please feel free to share this giveaway with your friends.