Star rating 8/10
This beautifully written novel from American author Richard Ford has a very striking opening paragraph. He is confident enough that his exemplary story telling will keep the reader on board that his narrator reveals at this early stage that his parents are going to commit a robbery, and that murders will subsequently take place. This gives an unusual sensation of knowing that these events will occur, and grimly waiting for them to unfold.
The narrator is Dell, who is recounting events back when he was fifteen years old. His family are living ordinary humdrum lives in a small city in Montana in 1960. His father has recently left the air force and is something of a loser, dabbling in selling black market meat. His mother is doing her best, despite a lingering unhappiness with her lot, and the notion that she could and should have done much better for herself, to grit her teeth and get on with caring for her family. Dell is close to his twin sister Berner, but the earlier onset of her adolescence is pulling her away into a different world from his. Their family, imperfect though it is as their parents' dissatisfaction with each other seeps into daily life, is shattered by a single event.
Ford is a master at creating a claustrophobic and tense atmosphere, vivid with description and empty with the tedium of the family's lives at the same time. It is reminiscent of Anne Tyler at her brilliant best. He captures perfectly how the twins must have felt in that domestic setting: 'Being a child under those circumstances was mostly waiting - for them to do something, or to be older - which seemed a long way away.'
And Dell keeps revealing future events before they happen as the story unfolds - he won't see his parents again after they visit them in jail following their arrest for the very amateurish bank robbery; terrible things are going to happen when he escapes to Canada with the help of a neighbour ....It is an interesting and original device that on the whole works really well. There are just a few awkward moments in the narration where you wonder how the boy really could have known some of the detail he is describing, such as what happened in detail at the hotel on the way to the robbery, when only his parents were there.
Berner, as the fast maturing and wild twin sister is a very likeable and interesting character. She longs to escape from this world both before, and even more so after the robbery. As their paths diverge, Dell is catapulted on another path altogether, as he is offered sanctuary in a remote part of Canada with a friend's son. This is in effect the second part of the book, and suffice it to say that the promised sanctuary turns out to be something rather different and more dangerous for Dell.
Despite some irksome plot inconsistencies, this is an absorbing and captivating piece of writing by Ford, who paints characters with resonance and vitality, and plants them firmly in the period he is writing about with real style.