British novelist Whitaker has chosen to set his debut novel in small-town America where a child’s abduction has unsettled the community. This might seem an unusual premise for a British debut but enables Whitaker to produce a character-driven novel where the residents of Tall Oaks have that slightly off-kilter weirdness that we readers might expect from that setting with its slight echoes of the film/tv work of David Lynch (“Blue Velvet”/”Twin Peaks”)
Three year old Harry is abducted from his bedroom by someone wearing a clown mask . I’ll put that info in because I know that alone might freak out some potential readers – coulrophobia sufferers beware (yes I did look that up!) The investigating officer has strong feelings for the distraught mother. Other Tall Oaks residents include Jerry, an overweight, squeaky-voiced photo-shop worker who cares for his behaviourally disturbed mother, who is dying from a brain tumour and Henrietta and Roger, a couple at the end of their marriage with secrets of their own. If this all sounds heavy-going then I’d like to introduce you to Manny, a great comic creation and very much the star of the piece.
Teenager Manny, as much adrift as most of the Tall Oaks residents, has adopted the dress of a 1930’s gangster to give him the right appearance when attempting to extort money from local business owners. He is foul-mouthed (Tourettes?) and brash and yet is often seen accompanied by his three year old sister. His need to create an authentic air of menace leads to him wearing a three piece suit in tropical temperatures and having to wear a head bandage to hide the grooves on his forehead from his too-tight fedora. There is a laugh in every one of his appearances in the novel, he completely won me over and shows Whitaker has skill with comic creations. Manny is supported by Abe, a lanky sidekick with the ability (unlike Manny) to grow an impressive moustache and Furat, Manny’s Iraqi girlfriend who has to put up with his spontaneous terrorist jibes. Manny is a brilliant mix of bravado and teenage angst. This character gives the novel an extra little sparkle which makes it worth seeking out.
Plot-wise, there are some twists I saw coming quite early on and some which surprised me- a satisfactory combination. The setting gives us British readers the opportunity to look on proceedings with a detachment that we might not have with a more familiar closer-to-home location and I think this works well. I never became totally immersed into life in Tall Oaks but I was close enough to observe the quirks of the characters and this was a good position to be in. It also gave me the chance to very much enjoy Whitaker’s gradual unveiling of the plot.
Tall Oaks is published on April 7th by Twenty7 books. Thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.