Welcome to Tall Oaks; just another small California town. Except for one thing. A tragedy which sets it apart from the neighbouring town. When three-year-old Harry goes missing from his home, the residents find themselves and the town thrust into the spotlight. But many of whom have secrets they want to remain hidden, none more so than the person who took Harry. But in a town where no-one is entirely honest with one another, how do you narrow down the pool of suspects. And who had reason to take Harry?
Was it his mother Jess, whose grief over the loss of her precious son drives her to many desperate acts. Anything to help her forget what she has lost and numb the pain for one moment. Or is it his father, Michael, the man who walked out on Jess and Harry but who may have his own reason for staying close to his wife.
Or could it be PhotoMax assistant manager, Jerry, who has a secret only his dying mother knows? Perhaps newcomer Jared, a man who has moved from town to town leaving a long line of broken hearts in his wake, and look set to break yet another heart when he begins to fall for local woman, Elena. And just what are Roger and Henrietta, Jess’s aunt and uncle hiding? Do they know more about what happened to Harry than they are letting on?
And as if investigating Harry’s disappearance isn’t enough for local police chief, Jim, he also must deal with the small matter of wannabe gangster, Manny and his best friend Abe, whose attempts at setting up protection racket are scaring certain elements of the business community. Plus, Jim has a few secrets of his own, ones which could threaten his career if they ever came to light.
Only one thing is certain; even if they find Harry, life in Tall Oaks will ever be the same again.
From the very chilling opening chapter, where Jim listens to a recording of Jess describing the night that Harry went missing, ‘Tall Oaks’ by Chris Whitaker sucked me right in. Although the story is focused around a rather tragic tale, in terms of the disappearance of a young boy and the devastating impact on his family, it is also so much more than that. There are so many different elements which are brought together so wonderfully that I honestly didn’t want to put this book down. Dang day job.
Chris Whitaker has done a great job of building the setting of small town America, or small town anywhere to be honest. Tall Oaks is a place where everyone knows everyone else. Where there the police know all about the local townspeople and where the presence of a stranger, such as Jared, will raise suspicions. And yet what is abundantly clear is that while Jared has a secret, one which is slowly revealed to the reader, he is not the only one. For in Tall Oaks, everyone is hiding something and the list of potential suspects is very, very long, keeping me as a reader guessing until the last few tragic chapters.
The characterisations in the novel are perfect, so brilliantly observed and written that you get a clear picture of each of the residents. From Jess’s depression and almost mania at times - her obsession with her ex-husband and her sinking into the arms of any man just to forget - to the sadness of Henrietta, and more poignantly, the emotional depiction of Jared, the confusion and desperation that drives him to take such drastic action at the end, I found myself totally invested in each and every one of their stories. These are characters who moved me, disturbed me, intrigued me and engaged me in equal measure. Superb.
But perhaps one of the greatest revelations in this book, one of the most appealing and delightfully funny characters I have read in a long time, is Manny. Wannabe gangster and generally self-confessed potty mouth, he is a ray of sunshine and wit in is could otherwise have been an emotionally heavy subject, a small respite from the sadness. The scene in which he tries to hit Pizza Hut for protection money is classic, as is the fact that Abe’s mom keeps preventing him from wearing authentic gangster clothing for fear of him overheating in the midday sun. And yet, despite his hare-brained ideas, Manny is also a sensitive young man, more in tune with the emotions of the other residents than perhaps he is given credit for. I absolutely loved this partnership and the balance of their humour against the heartbreak is spot on.
This is not your traditional thriller or mystery; this is less about the direct police investigation into the disappearance, although this does still form a key part of the story. This is about the town; about the people who are most deeply affected by the investigation and the lives of those they touch. It is not fast paced and yet there is still that feeling of urgency as Jess fights to find her answers, and heart-stopping moments as certain characters find themselves in peril. There is some kind of weird real-life crossover going on too, as elements of the story, the search for a missing boy and the person who is believed to have taken him, couldn’t be more topical given recent headlines.
This is exactly the kind of book that I could picture being made into a film. There is a brilliant cast of characters, a heart-breaking story threading throughout, and a superb comedic character to help balance some of the more emotional elements of the story, and believe me there are plenty of those. The chapters are set in short sections, moving between characters, no one person being given greater credence than the next, but the narrative flows well, making this such an easy book to read. And keep reading. I’m only sad that it’s over.