...either of which would be a great achievement, writing as the author does centered on the point-of-view of a nine-year-old boy in a lot of emotional pain. Adrian has been dumped more than once in his life - taken from his mother by the State when it is determined that she is unable to care for him, then later by his father who feels his `freedom' threatened by the presence of a child in his life. He lives with his grandmother Beattie and his uncle Rory - they have issues of their own, as does apparently everyone in his family. Beattie has lost her husband to cancer, and repeatedly muses in near-depressive resignation about being the mother of three adult children who cannot really be adults in the world. Rory is an emotional cripple as a result of a car accident that made a vegetable of his best friend, a direct result of rebellion against the upbringing Rory was given by his parents - he has become agoraphobic, never leaving the house. Sookie, Adrian's mother, is completely out of the picture (as is his dad) - no one has any idea of her whereabouts. Marta, Beatie's other daughter (who changed her name from Maggie when she decided it wasn't glamorous enough), is so cold and self-centered that when she comes to visit she sows nothing but conflict.
Into this atmosphere comes Adrian - actually a pretty normal nine-year-old, despite his view of himself. He's teetering on the brink of adolescence, and he's dealing emotionally with a pretty heavy case of abandonment anxiety - and this colors every aspect of his life. He is already developing numerous fears and phobias at his young age - he's afraid of shopping centers, quicksand, self-combustion; but mainly he begins to worry that he's about to be cast out again. Topping all of this off - and stirring the emotional pot mightily - is the case of three children who live nearby who seem to have simply vanished while walking a few blocks for ice cream. The children's parents appear on the telly, naturally distraught and tearful, begging of their return. The only clue seems to be a sketchy description of a `thin man' who was seen near the children just before they vanished - they city is in a panic, led by the fears of parents afraid their kids will be next. An unknown enemy is always the most frightful one.
Adrian is a great example of how children become abused and damaged in ways that are not as `direct' as people imagine when they hear the term `abused child'. While there is love and kindness in his life, the loneliness that he feels, and the fears of being abandoned by the shattered family that is left to him, are all too real. He is made to feel like a burden, someone to be traded off like a pet dog when it becomes too much trouble to deal with him.
Adrian hasn't many friends - his closest friend Clinton is only a superficial one. When a new family moves in across the street with three children, he feels himself drawn to them. He befriends Nicole, the oldest of the three - there are sparks within each of their personalities that draw the other. Nicole's mother is evidently dying - or at least seriously ill enough never to leave the house - and she is subconsciously very angry at her mom about this situation. She and Adrian hatch a plan to gain the attention of their families - and the admiration of the general populace - she thinks she knows where to find the missing children.
Another character that is portrayed vividly in this novel is a child named Sandra - most of the kids in school know her as Horsegirl. Sandra is a mysterious child with obvious emotional problems who has been placed in a school with neighborhood kids - she is both feared and ridiculed by her classmates, again depicting the fear with which we regard things we do not understand. Horsegirl is taller than the rest of her class, and loves to prance around like a horse, whinnying and neighing and snorting and stamping her feet. She carries a leather bridle and bit, sometimes running on the playground with the bit in her mouth - probably the only time she gets to feel a bit of freedom and happiness. When a substitute teacher comes to fill in while the children's regular instructor goes on her honeymoon, she is evidently not made aware of how `special' Sandra is - or how much liberty she has been granted in the classroom. A confrontation ensues, and Horsegirl lashes the substitute across the face with her bridle - the class is shocked and electrified, realizing deep inside that a line has been crossed.
All of Hartnett's characters - the adults and children alike - are wonderfully drawn, and the emotions that run so deeply through her story are honestly, delicately and believably portrayed. There are no punches pulled here - and that makes for a pretty rocky ride emotionally for the reader, but it's a ride that's more than worth it.
Hartnett has a fine reputation as an author of novels for young adults - and I suppose that's why this novel is grouped there. I've seen notes that say `ages 9 and up' regarding it - but I think it's a bit strong for younger readers. Moreover, I think it does the novel a bit of a disservice - this is a well-written work that can and should be enjoyed by a wider range of readers. Pitching it into the `young adult' bin is going to cause adult readers to skip over it - and that would be a shame. I feel fortunate that I came across it in the library with no indication of `reading level' attached to it - I would have missed out on something very memorable and rewarding.