Review: The Leaving by Tara Altebrando

Genre: YA / Thriller

Eleven years ago, six five-year-old children disappeared from a beachside town in Florida.

Now, five of the children have returned. However, none can remember why they were taken, where they’ve been or what happened to the sixth child, Max.

Gradually, two of the returned teenagers, Scarlett and Lucas, begin pulling clues from what little they know about themselves: Scarlett has swallowed a small, oval object; Lucas has a still-healing, homemade tattoo; Scarlett can sew and drive a car; Lucas knows how to handle a gun; when walking downstairs, they both skip the bottom step. They also sense that they are somehow different from the others. Closer. However, the more they learn, the more uncomfortable they feel about who they might be.

Meanwhile, after eleven years of feeling like the one left behind, Max’s little sister, Avery, is determined to be the one to find out what happened to her brother. Hers will not be the only family without answers.

The Leaving (Bloomsbury, 2016) is a smart and simmering psychological thriller about memory, trauma and identity.

The chapters alternate between Scarlett, Lucas and Avery, who each have very different experiences around what the town comes to call ‘The Leaving’ and the missing kids’ unexpected return. Scarlett’s mother is convinced Scarlett was abducted by aliens and her boyfriend is full of schemes to profit from her story, if she can figure out what that story is. Lucas’s dad dedicates his life to memorialising his son through art and is killed the same night Lucas and his friends are dropped off at the local playground. Meanwhile, Avery is only just beginning to move on from Max’s disappearance when the search to find him begins anew.

I love the book’s layout. In Scarlett’s chapters the words loop, distort and fracture when she tries to remember. Sometimes, her mind goes completely blank, and she’s aware of an odd clicking sound represented by forward slashes arranged in patterns over the page. In Lucas’ chapters, his stream of consciousness is frequently interrupted by thoughts contained in heavy black boxes and don’t feel like his own. These interruptions and patterns add to the mounting sense of mystery and unease.

And tension is key because The Leaving relies on a mounting sense of suspense and intrigue, and to a large extent, the story’s success hinges on whether or not the Big Reveal (i.e.: where the kids have been for eleven years) lives up to the reader’s expectations. In this way, The Leaving reminded me of titles including Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000), Marisha Pessl’s Night Film (2013) Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy (2014) and (in YA) E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars (2014). The difficulty with these kinds of stories is that the Big Reveal is always in danger of falling flat. I mean, the unknown loses much of its power to enchant and frighten the instant it’s named. In the case of The Leaving, Altebrando manages this risk by giving her twist multiple dimensions, first revealing what happened to the kids, then adding the secondary mysteries of where, how, who was involved and why did only five of the six children return? It works reasonably well, at least as well as this type of story can. Obviously, I can’t reveal much without giving the game away, but what happens to the children falls safely within the realm of ‘possible but not probable’, i.e. outlandish enough to be interesting and not immediately obvious, but also not completely ridiculous.

It’s also difficult to discuss the key themes in The Leaving without venturing into spoiler territory. But I think I can safely say that it deals with how individuals and communities respond to trauma and raises questions about how we approach and treat trauma. However, Altebrando presents the reader with a hypothetical and asks them to consider an extreme choice which, while interesting to consider in theory, didn’t seem particularly useful when thinking about how we address trauma.

The other thing that didn’t translate for me is the school shooting that occurs just before The Leaving. Wait! Hold up! What shooting? That was my reaction too. The reader learns about the shooting, in passing, early on. But both the town and the narrative are far more interested in the disappeared kids than the mass shooting at the local school. It did my head in. The massacre is an important plot point, but Altebrando never discusses it in detail. I get that it’s not the focus of the story, but it feels too big, too horrific, to leave on the sidelines. I wondered if my reaction was, in part, cultural. School shootings are almost unheard of in Australia (there have been three instances of students opening fire in Australian high schools, none resulting in fatalities). I’ve read quite a few novels and seen a number of films about school shootings—We Need to Talk About Kevin (2003)Vernon God Little (2003), Nineteen Minutes (2007), Bowling for Columbine (2002) and Elephant (2003)—but they feel foreign. And a narrative that deals with a school shooting so briefly was challenging. I wanted to tug Altebrando’s sleeve and say: ‘Back up! Missing kids with no memories is interesting and all, but you’re saying someone went into a school and did what?’

While I was a little thrown by the shooting and found some of The Leaving‘s central questions somewhat abstract, I loved the story overall. The plot is intriguing and clever—I was itching to see how it would play out—the characters are flawed yet sympathetic (and incredibly well-rounded, given they have no idea who they are) and the big mystery doesn’t disappoint. Overall, it’s a thrilling and highly compelling read.

five-stars

See The Leaving on Goodreads and purchase through BooktopiaAmazon and Book Depository.

Thank you to Bloomsbury Australia for providing a copy of The Leaving in exchange for an honest review.

Thanks also to Grammarly for picking up four critical issues and sixteen advanced issues in my draft of this review. If, like me, you have trouble with typos, do give Grammarly a go!

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