The Nowhere Child, the debut novel of Christian White, is a captivating tale of tension and trauma. In the opening pages, Kim, a 30 year old photography teacher in Melbourne, is sitting in the cafeteria during her meal break when a stranger approaches and asks if he can join her. He shows her a photograph of a young girl, Sammy Went, who went missing from her home in Manson, Kentucky, three days after her second birthday. He believes that Kim is Sammy Went.
Kim’s first reaction is disbelief. All her memories are based in Australia with her family: her younger half sister, Amy, her recently deceased mother and her stepfather Dean. As she looks through the meticulous collation of family photographs with Amy, she discovers that there is no record of their lives before Kim’s third birthday, except for a single shot of her as a two year old in a swimming pool. There is also an uncanny resemblance between her two-year old self and Sammy Went.
The more Kim digs, the more she doubts her family history. Determined to get to the bottom of the mystery, she travels to Manson, Kentucky. As she meets members of the West family and learns about the fanatical cult that they were associated with, she unleashes a host of dark secrets from the past.
A powerful image within the book is based on decay theory, which suggests that the neurochemical memory trace that is linked to a piece of information fades over time. In The Nowhere Child, White describes the neurochemical trace as ‘a big red thread’, which can be pulled on to recall the memory. He continues to explain how ‘when a particular memory isn’t retrieved over a long enough time period, the thread fades and weakens, and eventually (snaps)’. In the story, Kim keeps trying to remember the past, and repeatedly imagines her two-year old self pulling on a red thread and reeling it in like an empty fishing line. It drives her to keep digging to discover what happened to her as a child and to face the trauma that she has suppressed.
The Nowhere Child is written in alternating viewpoints. The main thread is the third person account of Kim’s search. This is interspersed with accounts of events around the time of the disappearance of Sammy West. The past events are from the perspective of a variety of key players, recorded in chronological order. This adds detail to the information Kim is uncovering, and increases the tension. The story unfolds in a very believable but unpredictable fashion, and the reader is kept guessing until the final chapters.