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by Belinda Bauer
Atlantic Monthly Press, July 2018
352 pages
ISBN: 0802127746

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a good children's story needs a method of immediately removing parents from the scene. SNAP isn't a children's book, but uses this convention to good effect as three children manage without adults in their life or at least try to manage. Jack, the eldest, keeps up appearances by tending to the garden and sometimes putting food on the table, at least whenever he can rustle up some cash by fencing goods from houses he's grown skilled at burgling. He also uses those moments inside other people's houses as a chance to imagine what life should be like. He sleeps in beds, eats food from the fridge, breaks things out of anger, and comes to be known as the "Goldilocks burglar." What goes on inside Jack's house is a bit more challenging. The front garden may be spick and span, but the inside has filled up with dirt and mice and every available surface has been covered with towers of the newspapers his sister scours for news of their mother. It doesn't help that his eccentric younger sister has taken to peeking over the back fence to talk to the too-nosy new neighbor.

The opening of the book sets the stage. A woman whose car has broken down tells her children to stay put while she walks to the nearest roadside phone. After a long wait in a scorching-hot car, Jack decides they need to find her, but after a grueling hike carrying his smallest sibling, they find the phone dangling off the hook, and nobody who is willing to help them until a policeman finally pulls up. Their pregnant mother has vanished right off the face of the earth, and after the police investigation has stuttered to a standstill, their distraught and incapable father makes a disappearing act of his own. That leaves Jack in charge, doing whatever it takes to keep the family together.

Meanwhile, several years later another pregnant woman hears a bump in the night. Her husband is away, and she anxiously confronts the darkened house. It's nothing, just nerves, she thinks until she sees the knife left beside her bed and a birthday card altered to read "I could have killed you." She decides not to make a fuss about it, at which point the author weaves a spindly psychological suspension bridge that doesn't really manage to carry the reader over a gaping plot hole except by sheer will. The Mutt and Jeff pair of detectives meant to solve the burglaries end up investigating a murder are more or less comic relief, playing on genre cliches.

As a mystery, this book isn't entirely successful, but as a children's book that is, a book about children and the world seen from their angle, if not written for children it's a compelling read and narrated gracefully enough to get itself longlisted for the Booker Prize. Maybe next time the Booker judges will go for an elegantly written crime novel that does a bit better job of ticking the plot boxes. In the meantime, it's certainly a worthy addition to the avid reader's TBR pile.

Barbara Fister is an academic librarian, columnist, and author of the Anni Koskinen mystery series.

Reviewed by Barbara Fister, July 2018

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