Title: If You Find Me
Author: Emily Murdoch
Length: 248 pages
My star rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
Warnings: This review is (relatively) spoiler-free. I have included some hidden spoilers in my Goodreads review. The review (and the novel) also contain frank discussions of mental illness and sexual and emotional abuse and sometimes-graphic descriptions of violence.
Carey Blackburn and her little sister Jenessa live in a broken-down camper in the heart of an enormous national forest in Tennessee. They can rely only on each other, because their mother uses almost all her money to feed her addiction to meth. Their lives are turned upside-down, however, when Carey’s father, along with a social worker, come crashing into their clearing. They struggle to find their place in an alien world, but Carey also struggles with the ghosts of her past, some of which are easier to banish than others.
Given its size and emotional intensity, If You Find Me was an excellent book in a lot of ways.
It was somewhat similar in concept to the first book I read this year, Where the Stars Still Shine, but this one was definitely superior. (This review is going to echo that one quite a bit, so if you want to glance over it, you can. I articulate some of my opinions on issues raised in both books a bit more eloquently there and wanted to avoid repeating myself too much here.)
Carey was a wonderful narrator. She had a strong and distinct voice—though fortunately, Emily Murdoch made the choice to reattach the Gs to Carey’s -ing words after the third chapter or so—and I really got a sense of who she was, how she thought, and what she felt. Sometimes, that’s lacking even in a first-person narrator, so props to Ms. Murdoch for that. I especially loved Carey’s love-hate relationship with music. She reminded me a bit of Katniss Everdeen—tough as nails on the outside and blindly devoted to her baby sister—especially given their similar backstories and setting. She was also reminiscent of a very young Clarice Starling. My only wish is that she hadn’t been quite so inexplicably brilliant and articulate, or quite so stunningly beautiful (because…all malnourished fourteen-year-old girls look like models…right?).
The other characters, sadly, fell a little flat. Most of them were underdeveloped or one-dimensional. Little Jenessa was endearing, sure, but it’s not hard to make a six-year-old sweet and loveable, especially when we’re told “everyone loves her.” Mr. Berskin (Carey’s father) was a bit of a non-entity; Melissa, her sweet and loving stepmother, was the opposite of the “evil stepmother” trope, which was nice, but just as bland. And don’t get me started on Delaney, her Mean Girl stepsister. Even though Delaney’s pure bitchiness is explained somewhat, it rang…well, not false, but just off somehow? I don’t know. I felt she could have been written better. The only character who really felt believable was Carey’s friend Pixie.
Unfortunately, there was a bit of instalove thrown in for good measure (and—just to make it creepy—Carey is only fourteen). That said, the love story makes up very little of the book instead of a third of it, as in the aforementioned Where the Stars Still Shine.
I am aware of this book’s other imperfections, too. The girls immediately transition from a truly horrific life into a seemingly perfect one; there is no actual counseling or therapy involved; as other reviews have mentioned, the ins and outs of the child services system are not accurately represented (though that doesn’t particularly bother me—I will happily allow Ms. Murdoch some artistic license for the sake of the story); the girls’ secret(s) may easily have been exposed through a few simple medical exams (but I would add that Carey tells us that a medical exam did take place, just not in the narrative itself).
All of those issues may be glaring for some people, and I understand that. They just weren’t for me.
And in part, that’s because I read If You Find Me mainly as a character study of Carey. Carey has a decade of abuse and psychological damage to overcome, and what’s covered in this slim novel is just the beginning of her journey, as she herself acknowledges. I’m definitely down with more books dealing with daughters who have been abused by their mothers—though I do wish they weren’t all so over-the-top about it. Abuse comes in many forms. For example, my mother’s fix isn’t meth or moonshine, but beer. She’s never physically hurt me, or even neglected me, but my emotional scars are real. Of course, that’s not to say that I doubt the existence of plenty of mothers like Carey’s—drug addicts who hit and neglect their children—only that I’m 100% sure that there are twice as many mothers who words as their weapons, the way my mother does. The results of that kind of abuse are much harder to observe…and thus perfect to explore in a book!
Carey’s mother, though, is completely, objectively awful—not only did she kidnap her five-year-old, isolate her from other children (and civilization), allow her to live in horrible conditions, go uneducated and consistently hungry; she also paid for her drug habits by letting men molest her—and fortunately, Carey recognized it from the beginning. She sometimes missed her mother, and probably still loved her in some sense, but she knew that her mother had failed in all the ways a mother should never fail. That’s huge. It’s important for Carey in terms of processing and eventually recovering from all her abuse.
In light of all of that, I’m glad that Carey’s mother’s mental illness (bipolar disorder) was not used—by Carey or by anyone else—as an “excuse,” which was one of my biggest beefs with Where the Stars Still Shine. Carey did not give her mother a pass for letting she and Jenessa starve, freeze, and be molested just because she was ill. Maybe it’s harsh, even unfair, of me to appreciate that, but I do. Eventually, the illness and the addictions become just that: excuses. One line particularly struck me, though, as it’s something I continue to struggle with a lot:
…I used to worry that I was all Mama, in ways that do and don’t count.
Me, too, Carey. I still worry.
I also appreciated that Carey and Jenessa received some professional attention (not through actual therapy, but at least they had contact with a social worker), and that Carey was encouraged to go to school and to begin to socialize with people around her age.
And, since this was—to me—a character study, the best overall thing? Carey’s development was gradual. She took baby steps throughout the novel that gave her enough courage to make one final leap of faith at the end for her sister’s sake, but also for her own. She grew as a character, sure, but it didn’t happen overnight or over the course of a chapter, and she wasn’t “full-grown,” so to speak, by the end of the book—also good.
It does bother me that some people are critical of Carey and Jenessa’s arcs because (essentially) they don’t seem “damaged” enough, though. (This also happens when people talk about Cosette in Les Misérables.) In fact, it
really pisses me off drives me crazy. Every situation is different. Every survivor copes in different ways. And sometimes, it’s nice for survivors to read about other survivors—however fictional—who have a shot at recovering and leading a relatively happy and healthy life. Not everyone may buy Carey’s state of mind, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. And guess what? The author is an abuse survivor, too. So please, take that particular criticism and shove it.
Anyway, the only missing element for me was a sense of justice or of closure, if you will. I realize that bad people get away as often as they get caught, but damn, did I wish Carey’s mother had been found and made to pay some consequences for some of the horrendous things she did to her daughters. Hell, even Carey coming face-to-face with her mother and having a few choice words with her would have satisfied me. Instead, her mother is seen and heard only in Carey’s memories and the scars she left behind. There was no justice, only heartache, and as frustrating as that was, I suppose it made the novel a little more “real.”
Overall, If You Find Me was a good read. It’s too heavy to be quick and it’s definitely haunting and thought-provoking, if not without flaws. I would strongly recommend it to anyone.