I’ve read some sad books this year – I Refuse and Academy Street spring to mind – but none as sad as Suzanne McCourt’s The Lost Child set in small town Australia. At one stage I thought I might have to give it up but her writing is so impressive that I decided to tough it out. So there it is, a fine book but with a health warning.
Sylvie is both the eponymous lost child and its narrator. She’s almost five when the novel opens: bright, obsessed with the Phantom comics her older brother Dunc hoards and constantly on the lookout for trouble between her parents. It’s the 1950s: the Second World War is still fresh in everyone’s memory although her father rarely talks about it. He’s at odds with his brother, angry, violent and plays away with That Trollop, as her mother calls his mistress. Gossip at Burley Point points to the bombing of Darwin and what he saw there to explain his bad behaviour. Sylvie keeps her head down, follows Dunc around, sneaking into his bedroom to catch up with the Phantom when he’s not there. Dunc’s disappearance after Sylvie lets slip a dark truth about her father is a hammer blow. McCourt’s novel follows Sylvie through her parents’ divorce, her mother’s breakdown and her father’s spiteful cruelty, through tragedy and the odd glimmer of hope until, aged fifteen she reluctantly leaves the town where she grew up.
It’s a brave thing to tell your story through the voice of a character beginning when she’s five but McCourt carries it off expertly which is what makes her novel so powerful. Sylvie’s watchful puzzlement at her parents’ imploding marriage, her attempts to make sense of the adult conversations which say more than they should and the awfulness of being marked out by poverty and divorce at school are all the more vivid told through her own voice. McCourt manages the transition through the years brilliantly: Sylvie is as convincing at fifteen as she was at five. And lest you think it’s all doom and gloom – there are some wonderful comic moments: Sylvie’s abduction of a particularly beautiful ‘kitten’ when the circus comes to town is beautifully done. It’s quite an achievement, so much so that I had to double-check to make sure it was a first novel which indeed it is.