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By Dan Smith. Pegasus. 352 pages. $25.95
Wednesday, June 12, 2013
“The Child Thief” is a good novel; let’s just get this out of the way first. Dan Smith has written a good story, and it definitely is worth the time of any reader remotely interested in a historical thriller.
In “The Child Thief,” which is Smith’s first novel distributed to the United States, a Russian man and his family encounter a refugee, who is dragging behind him the mutilated bodies of a pair of children. Of course, this is a horror the family is used to: Their remote village remained relatively unaffected by World War I, but veterans brought back terrible tales of suffering. The bodies upset the villagers so much that they react violently, and, soon, one of their own children goes missing. Luka, the war veteran who discovered the stranger, is sent out into the wilderness to rescue the child and stop the kidnapper.
If this sounds like a solid, but a bit derivative plot, that’s because it is. The pages move quickly as one reads “The Child Thief,” and with only one major exception, the plot moves nicely, and the story has a satisfying but morally troubling ending.
One of the issues with the book is Smith’s odd choice to use Luka’s first-person viewpoint. This causes an issue because Smith’s descriptive detail is excellent, so much so that it sometimes jars the reader upon realizing that the hard-bitten WWI veteran is spending so much time pondering his surroundings and describing them in great detail. In one passage, Luka describes a child’s stare as “like a blind child being led into a room.” In another, Luka spends some time explaining what the kulak system is under Soviet rule, something that he would know intrinsically, and, thus, not need to explain … unless the author of the story was trying to explain a unique concept to the reader.
These are the moments where the curtain gets pulled back, and Smith is there, operating the controls well, but not completely invisible as the author of a first-person story should be. Luka’s voice, at times, melds into Smith’s, and, as a result, the book sometimes pushes the reader away.
Still, “The Child Thief” remains an excellent American debut, with only a few flaws. It probably will be regarded as one of the best thrillers of 2013.
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