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By Cote Smith
Reviewed by Nora Rawn
Based partly on his own childhood experience growing up under the shadows of Leavenworth, Kansas' looming prisons, the characters in Cote Smith's debut novel are so restricted in their options that they hardly seem more free than their town's convict population. Smith captures the bleak hopelessness of this environment well, and his book plays out in washed tones and depopulated spaces almost cinematically. There is little of the typical cloying inner commentary that mars most other novels written from the perspective of a young child, nor is the writing cluttered with the typical overly literary flourishes that distract in many a gritty debut.Smith does allow his pace to sag somewhat toward the end, when the foreshadowing of a terrible event and then its depiction drag out unnecessarily, but overall the style is spare and its carefully constructed scenes seem ripe for the screen.
The young narrator and his older brother are spending their summer vacation cooped up inside following the split of their parents, their struggling mother unable to afford childcare when she is working and too tired or depressed to play with them when she isn't. De facto inmates of their run-down apartment, they jail-break themselves against orders to enjoy the complex's swimming pool. Surrounded by sirens for prisoner escapes and tornadoes, every action the brothers take is overhung by a sense of threat. Disaster looms on the horizon like a storm cloud, and neither their overworked mom nor their police officer dad seems able to stop it. Loving parents they may be in their fashion, but they are too distracted by their own preoccupations--money troubles, work troubles,post-divorce dalliances--to stop and notice how their sons are struggling. Their inattention allows an older youth to begin winning the older brother's trust, as his sweet, trusting sibling struggles to make sense of it all.
If not for a late turn to the macabre, this would be a touching story of a family at sea, not to mention an indictment of the society they live in, which provides no safety net whatsoever for its down on their luck citizens. The final act takes its shock value too far, however. Without the dramatic denouement, this would have been a moderately accomplished if not unfamiliar depiction of a reality far too close to many, but the plot's escalation goes further than it needs to without successfully making the case for the necessity of the decision. Smith's choice to sensationalize an otherwise restrained and tonally consistent novel is a shame, though readers who like their novels dark will perhaps not mind.
Out of 10: 7.0