That is not to say that the core issue is not taken seriously - indeed there are definite 'bad guys' here, but the novel acknowledges that there is not always a clear-cut definition of hero and villain, depending on perspective. This is encapsulated in the character of 'Jolly' aka 'Charles Lundy' a doctor who 'rescues' the young protagonist, Caleb (or Nicky as he is known in captivity) from a brutal and depraved paedophile ring, having been abducted at the age of 11. However, despite this seemingly altruistic act, Jolly tells Caleb that his parents are no longer looking for him and keeps him at his own house for a further 18 months before the FBI trace him. Jolly’s motives - and how exactly he obtained Caleb from the ring - are never made clear. The character of Jolly is mainly seen in flashback, through the prism of Caleb's memories - and Caleb's own perspective is never clear-cut; is he suffering from a form of Stockholm Syndrome in insisting that Jolly 'saved' him? Was he also abused by Jolly? Difficult questions.
The book opens with Caleb, now 14, returned to his parents and younger sister Lark by the FBI after being rescued. What should be an ecstatic reunion is, inevitably, a confused and difficult process for all concerned. Caleb is not the boy who disappeared 3 years before and the family and Caleb struggle to work through this. Caleb's father Jeff, especially struggles to connect having given Caleb up for dead - a fact that has led to a deep rift between him and Caleb's mother, Marlene. Caleb himself is unsettled and self-conscious being, as he sees it, ripped from the protective bubble that Jolly had kept him in and still traumatised by his previous experiences.
What impressed me most about this work is how the core plot of Caleb’s return is used, through the various characters, to explore issues of identity in various ways. This is most obviously seen in Caleb, who was not only known as ‘Nicky’ during his captivity, but inhabited Nicky as an alter-ego as a sort of defence mechanism – a persona he finds it hard to let go of. Marlene has also undergone a change in moving on from drug and alcohol addiction during Caleb’s disappearance to a decisive role in moving the family to Costa Rica to avoid the US media glare. Jeff’s identity is as a husband and father is challenged by Caleb’s return in less positive ways – Marlene cannot forgive him for giving Caleb up for dead and Jeff himself fails to connect with the newly-returned Caleb as a father; a role that falls to his wayward brother in Costa Rica, Lowell, whilst Jeff remains in the US.
Costa Rica itself is portrayed as a challenging place of extreme beauty (the main setting is the 'Cloud Forest’ nature reserve of Monteverde), occasional tedium (the place is shrouded in damp cloud and rain for long periods) and flashes of danger (Lowell’s mysterious and possibly illegal ‘business’, escaped jaguars, and the ever-present active volcano). The descriptions of the scenery draw the reader into the landscape and mood of Costa Rica and emphasise that here Costa Rica is more than just a backdrop; it is a catalyst that changes all who arrive there.
A challenging read then due to its unflinching treatment of a difficult subject (much of which is hinted at rather than overtly described, and is all the more effective for that), but ultimately one that draws you into the lives of ordinary, flawed, individuals dealing with an extraordinary situation. That such dark subject matter forms the basis of an ultimately redemptive story is testament to the quality of writing here. A profoundly moving book and one of the stand-out novels of my journey.
My next stop is a Nicaragua still reeling from the after effects of civil war and the disastrous intervention of the Reagan administration and the CIA, with ‘The Good Adventurers’ by Sandra George…