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Thursday, April 18, 2013

The serpent in the Garden of Eden

Second Chances (After the Fall) by CHARITY NORMAN

In the quiet of a winter's night, a rescue helicopter is sent to airlift a five-year-old boy with severe internal injuries. He's fallen from the upstairs verandah of an isolated farmhouse, and his condition is critical. At first Finn's fall looks like a horrible accident; after all, he's prone to sleepwalking. Only his frantic mother, Martha McNamara, knows how it happened. And she isn't telling. Not yet. Maybe not ever.

   Tragedy isn't what the McNamara family expected when they moved to New Zealand. For Martha, it was an escape. For her artist husband Kit, it was a dream. For their small twin boys, it was an adventure. For sixteen-year-old Sacha, it was the loss of her lifestyle and friends, but also a challenge.

   They end up on the isolated coast of the North Island, seemingly in paradise. But their peaceful idyll is shattered as the family is driven down a path that threatens to destroy them all...

There is more than one mystery in this brilliantly written novel by Charity Norman. Who was Sacha's real father, and what will happen if she finds him? Why do their precious keepsakes keep on disappearing? Is it just an imaginary poltergeist that is threatening them?  Where has Kit disappeared to? And how did five-year-old Finn fall from the balcony? 

There are so many spoiler alerts that writing a review of this compelling story has to be a careful process. All I can really do is rave. I loved Charity Norman's debut novel, Freeing Grace, so confidently expected to enjoy Second Chances. (Readers in the UK will find it under the title After the Fall.) It's different from Freeing Grace -- surprisingly different -- but, if possible, it is even better. I'm no marathon reader, but I read it in one long, hypnotised sitting.

The scenario will be familiar to many -- Martha's artistic, attractive and mercurial husband, Kit, loses his advertising agency in the economic crisis, and it becomes extremely difficult to manage on a single salary, particularly as Kit starts to look in the bottom of a bottle for the answer to his problems.  And so the option of migrating to New Zealand is raised.

There are the usual push-pull factors. In New Zealand, the family can live on Martha's income, so Kit can pursue his dream of becoming a creative artist.  The five-year-old twins are ecstatic at the prospect of adventure. The scenery, Martha hears, is stupendous. On the other hand, she is very close to her sister and her really adorable father. And the twins' half-sister, sixteen-year-old Sacha, is appalled at the very idea of moving across the world.

But they do it. New Zealand is just as beautiful as advertised, and the natives are friendly. They find an idyllic life-style block with bush, birds, a beach, and an atmospheric old house. Martha has a job she likes, and can do well. Kit paints beautiful scenery and his work finds a market. But, while New Zealand has no snakes, there is a serpent in this Garden of Eden. And Martha's dream becomes every mother's nightmare.

Tension mounts as she struggles to cope. Prepare to stay up late, and reach for a box of tissues.  Five stars, unreservedly.

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