The Child Finder
By Rene Denfeld
Published: September 5th 2017
Published by: Harper
Published by: Harper
While I haven't gotten around to publishing a review of it yet, I first was introduced to Rene Denfeld via her debut novel, The Enchanted, last year. A friend with similar taste in books read it, and essentially said to me "this book is weird and messed up and someone else needs to experience it with me". The Enchanted is a difficult book to recommend to just anyone off the street, though, because of its subject matter (convicted criminals on death row) and The Child Finder falls into that same category. I want everyone to read it, but it's absolutely not a book for everyone.Three years ago, Madison Culver disappeared when her family was choosing a Christmas tree in Oregon’s Skookum National Forest. She would be eight years old now—if she has survived. Desperate to find their beloved daughter, certain someone took her, the Culvers turn to Naomi, a private investigator with an uncanny talent for locating the lost and missing. Known to the police and a select group of parents as The Child Finder, Naomi is their last hope.
Naomi’s methodical search takes her deep into the icy, mysterious forest in the Pacific Northwest, and into her own fragmented past. She understands children like Madison because once upon a time, she was a lost girl too.
As Naomi relentlessly pursues and slowly uncovers the truth behind Madison’s disappearance, shards of a dark dream pierce the defenses that have protected her, reminding her of a terrible loss she feels but cannot remember. If she finds Madison, will Naomi ultimately unlock the secrets of her own life?
Denfeld's writing is beautiful without being overwritten, lyrical but sparse. She doesn't use any more words than necessary, and with the topics that she writes about, sometimes that's for the better. The book's short and quick to get through, and even though it only took me a few days to read it, I found myself wanting to slow down with certain passages, spend some time lingering over her word choice, the way she constructs a sentence.
I've described her work, both here and in The Enchanted, as "beautiful words about terrible things". In The Child Finder, Denfeld writes unflinchingly about subjects that would be dangerous for most authors. It's easy to sensationalize a missing child, easy to cross the line into inappropriate when writing about child abuse. Denfeld doesn't shy away from the realities of Madison's situation, or the stories of any of the other missing children that are mentioned. But the writing never feels exploitative. It's honest in a way that I think many other authors would have difficulty nailing. She writes about good people doing bad things, about bad people who have done worse things. About out-of-the-way, middle of nowhere places you'd never even notice on a map. All with an ease that I am perpetually envious of.
It's difficult to talk about this book without spoilers, although in my opinion the plot points are all fairly apparent as you read. Most of the twists are pretty clearly telegraphed ahead of time. Usually, this disappoints me in a book, but in this case, I'm reading more because I love Denfeld's way with words. And even with being able to guess the plot, the book still managed to keep me on the edge of my seat. The story is less of a mystery, and more of an untangling of Naomi's past and personality as she tries to find both Madison and another child whose case she takes on at the same time. Is the story predictable? Yes, of course. But the way Denfeld weaves many different stories, points of view, and even some fantasy elements together helps transcend the fact that I was pretty easily able to see where the plot was going.
The character of Naomi is reminiscent of the female lead of The Enchanted. The unnamed investigator in that book was a woman often of few words, closed off from other people around her. They have similar jobs -- uncovering pasts and tragedies that often want to stay hidden. They attract the attention of men who should probably know better, but who are drawn to her anyway. If there's a flaw in this book, it's that I couldn't stop conflating Naomi with the investigator, given how similar they are.
While the plot of The Child Finder wraps up at the end without a cliffhanger, there are enough plot points left hanging for a sequel, and Goodreads indicates this book may be part of a series. If so, I look forward to what comes next for Naomi, even though I know it will hurt to read.
Content notes: Child abduction, child abuse (physical and sexual), character death, physical violence, animal harm.