Twenty7 | 2016 | 360p | Bought copy | Buy the book
Tall Oaks used to be such a quiet small American town, unknown to strangers. But then, one terrible day, three-year-old Harry Monroe was stolen from his bed and the country’s media came to call. Three months have passed and Harry is still missing. Harry’s mother Jess is traumatised. Every time she closes her eyes she sees the clown masked-face of the man who stole him. Although the reporters have moved on to the next big story, the detective in charge of the case, Jeff, can’t stop caring, desperate to give the boy back to his distraught mother.
But life has to continue and Tall Oaks is full of busy lives. Teenager Manny sees himself at the centre of much of it and is setting about proving it in his own inimitable style, while trying to ignore the fact that his mother has begun dating again. Jerry is a photographer in the making, a trapped spirit, but his life is tied down to his domineering, awful mother. And moving around them is a circle of family and friends, all interacting, all with their own cares, all finding laughs where they can, and all with their secrets.
At this point I have to say that Tall Oaks is a fantastic novel and all the more brilliant when you consider that it’s Chris Whitaker’s debut. I believe he lives in England and yet he has created a portrait of an American small town that doesn’t just feel real but is also absolutely enchanting – a wonderful blend of the authentic and the strange. Whitaker also blends its mood. This is a story that is at times desperately sad and shockingly tragic but there is also a warm humour that runs through it. Its wit sparkles, especially in the dialogue and in its creation of Manny. If you have to have one reason why you need to read this novel it’s Manny. He might be out to shock but a heart that huge cannot be hidden.
Tall Oaks is another of those novels that is promoted for its shocking twists and, yet again, this does this wonderful book a disservice. There’s a crime in it – the abduction of little Harry – but this is just one part of the story. There are so many other elements to it and it is driven as much by character as it is plot, if not more so. There are some powerful surprises, hardly surprising in a community so private, and one or two stunned me. They felt to me as if they were my reward for growing to care so much for these people. This is what happens when you get to know somebody.
Chris Whitaker is a marvellous, witty writer. His prose feels light and real, flowing naturally, and his gift for characterisation is just wonderful. The character of Manny is a masterpiece. He is complicated for all kinds of reasons that are explored with an astonishingly delicate touch. He is a pure delight to know and how he made me laugh! But there’s more to this novel than Manny. It gives and gives. Tall Oaks also begins with one of the most disturbing opening chapters I’ve read and it continues with writing that made me want to cry and laugh.
I’ve got to say it again – this is a debut novel. Extraordinary. Whatever will be next? But Chris Whitaker is a new author whose future books I will be sure to snap up at the earliest opportunity.