Thursday, 17 October 2013

Shining Example

Light Shining in the Forest by Paul Torday
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, $29.99
Pp. 350

Every five minutes a child goes missing in the UK. This bald fact is reiterated throughout this novel, which deals with absent children, presumed runaways or victims of kidnapping. And yet it is not a police procedural.

Geordie is a logger working alone in the forest. His relationship with Mary is collapsing and his mind strays since the unexplained disappearance of their son, Theo. The overtones of the kindly woodcutter are strong and the presence of the trees becomes ominous like those in a pop-up storybook. “The trees are there because the trees are there.” If this is a fairytale it is more Brothers Grimm than Disney.

Another of the missing children, Becky, has an alcoholic mother and a distressed home life. A third, Karen, is comfortable and well-looked after. There doesn’t seem to be any pattern, but they all like to read. As in the best psychological thrillers, the familiar is rendered frightening, such as the mobile library van with its ice-cream chime luring children onto the street like a Pied Piper. But this is not a horror story.

Pompous politician, Norman Stokoe is newly appointed to the position of Children’s Czar for the North East. He isn’t sure what this entails but he sits behind a desk, patronises his secretary, Pippa, drinks a lot of coffee, and attends meetings. Although he doesn’t like children – “Children cost money. They take up time. They disrupt one’s routine” – he knows all the statistics about their welfare or lack thereof. “It is an industrial scale problem and it requires an industrial response. The UK leads the world – but whether in measuring the problem or solving it, it is harder to say.” There is a major discrepancy between the emotional and the objective, but this is not a sociological treatise.

An intrepid reporter, Willie Craig, stumbles across a potential story in the missing children and brings it to Norman’s attention. Willie finds life on the local paper in rural Nothumberland crushingly dull and is at loggerheads with his editor who believes that “a local newspaper should concentrate on community issues and leave the rest to the national tabloids.” There are elements of detection and deduction, yet the main focus is not on investigative journalism.

Paul Torday wrote the book-club favourite Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, made into a shiny film starring British box-office darlings Emily Blunt and Ewan McGregor, and criticised by some for being a little bit twee. Some of those capricious characteristics emerge in this novel. It is written entirely in the present tense with a refreshing lack of adverbs and attributions, and with undertones of humour implicit in the short, breathless sentences: “She listens. She is rapt, like a raptor.” But this is far from a quirky flight of whimsy.

In fact, it is hard to pin down exactly what this novel is, which is, obviously, the point. In this age of sound-bite culture, we like to pigeonhole and opine in definitive terms. Whereas previous ages looked to the supernatural to interpret things they couldn’t understand, we prefer scientific rationalisation while we worship celebrities. A crucifix hanging on a wall is deemed unusual. “It’s where most people Willie knows would have pinned up Newcastle Untied colours. In his own flat he’s got a shirt signed by Alan Shearer pinned to the wall as decoration. No crucifixes.”

And yet what possible logical explanation can there be for what we do to our children? “Look at the headlines in the papers most weeks: children are tortured as witches; they are tortured for recreational purposes; they are abandoned, abused, trafficked, exploited, or just lost.” Torday hints of something spiritual in the disappearance of the children, from the Angel of the North statue, which Norman spots on his drive up to Newcastle, “spreading its protective wings above the warehouses and factory units below”, to the shadows of the wind turbines, “like a cross over the road”, and the light shining in the forest, which startles Geordie as he lumbers there.

Although “Nobody wants to accept that the unreal can become real”, Theo displays stigmata – the physical representation of Christ’s wounds on the cross – which the authorities suspect are marks of abuse. When Torday invents a genuine Deus ex Machina, Pippa reflects, “there doesn’t seem to be much of a market for miracles these days”, but it is no more unbelievable than the horrific alternative of a person who plays God by taking and creating life.

Not all questions the novel poses are neatly answered, which can be frustrating if you like your stories to have tidy endings. The world may be “rather annoyed by something that it cannot easily explain”, but by not supplying pat explanations Torday’s latest novel remains mystical and tantalising. And due to a masterful control of tone, pace and suspense, in the hands of a sensitive director, it will make an excellent film.

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