Book World: Review of 'The Last Child' by John Hart

Author John Hart
Author John Hart (Abigail Seymour)
By Art Taylor
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, July 29, 2009

THE LAST CHILD

By John Hart

Minotaur.

373 pp. $24.95

A year and a day have passed since the abduction of 12-year-old Alyssa Merrimon, and her twin brother, Johnny, has never felt more alone. His father abandoned the family soon after the disappearance, and his mother has all but vanished into a haze of drinking, drugs and abusive sex. The police detective who investigated the case hovers over the remnants of the family like a watchful angel, but his attentions are unwelcome; he hasn't found the girl. In fact, Johnny's only true friend is his frail young classmate Jack, and even he wavers between supporting Johnny's faith that Alyssa's alive and knowing that she's gone forever.

But then a clue falls from the sky -- literally: A biker hit by a car and thrown from a bridge lands almost at Johnny's feet. "I found her," he says in his dying words. "The girl that was taken."

John Hart's third novel covers only a few days in the life of a North Carolina town, but the minutes all seem breathless. Every few chapters bring new twists and startling revelations: another girl's disappearance, bodies and then more bodies, a surprising series of connections that casts new light on everything that's come before and throws darkening shadows over what's ahead.

The young boy at the story's center is a magnificent creation, Huck Finn channeled through "Lord of the Flies," and as a detective in his own right he proves as driven and passionate as any mystery fan could hope for. Along the way, the author returns to the central themes of his first two novels -- class divisions and the bonds of family -- but with a broader scope, delving with grace and empathy into the inner lives of characters across a wide spectrum: policemen balancing the personal and the professional, an escaped convict who hears the voice of God, troubled children growing up too fast, parents undone by grief. And where those earlier novels -- even his Edgar Award-winning "Down River" -- seemed mired in frequent melodrama, this new book strips away the more overt sentimentality and proves all the more poignant and heartbreaking.

Hart is still far too young for "The Last Child" to be called a crowning achievement, but the novel's ambition, emotional breadth and maturity make it an early masterpiece in a career that continues to promise great things.

Taylor contributed an essay on Hart's novels to an upcoming issue of the North Carolina Literary Review.


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