Chicken House, 2010, 299 pp., $17.99
Although I recognize that generalizations are problematic, I get the distinct impression that Australia is, at the present moment, a virtual hotbed for young adult literature. The young adult novels I've read by Australian writers in the past few years have made an indelible impression on me, and I find that authors such as John Marsden (Letters From the Inside), Markus Zusak (The Book Thief), and Sonya Harnett (Surrender)--to name but a few--write with a commitment to realism that is unflinching in its honesty. So, too, does Lucy Christopher, an exciting new talent who was born in Wales, but grew up in Melbourne. Stolen, which Christopher wrote as part of a doctoral program, shines a light on the dark corners of the human heart, and is at once lyrical and haunting.
While traveling abroad with her parents, high school student Gemma Toombs is abducted and taken to a remote part of the Australian wilderness where she is held captive by Ty, a young man with steely blue eyes. Although she vaguely recognizes her captor, Gemma is unable to recall the context in which she originally met him. Though she attempts to flee on several occasions, she is unable to navigate the desert, let alone survive its harsh climate. As such, she must concede the impossibility of her escaping. With time, Gemma learns that Ty stalked her for years prior to abducting her, in part because she reminded him of his mother, who abandoned him at birth, and who succumbed to the degradations of city life upon leaving the Australian Outback (and Ty's father) at the insistence of her family. To "save" Gemma from a similar fate, Ty takes it upon himself to create a new life for her in the virgin wilderness, which he is convinced holds the key to their spiritual salvation. At first, Gemma feels only contempt for Ty. As time passes, however, she discovers that, like the desert itself, he is capable of great beauty, as well as cold indifference. She is especially confused upon discovering that, much to her dismay, she has developed feelings of compassion for the man who effectively stole her life from her.
If the storyline sounds contrived, it is anything but. Gemma and Ty are believable, multilayered characters, and Christopher is a savvy writer who resists the urge to offer easy answers to complex questions. Having spent time in the deserts of Arizona and southern Utah, I was impressed with her ability to capture the subtle nuances of a landscape that is at once awe-inspiring and terrifying. Likewise, while the rational part of me was repulsed by Ty's actions, I was surprised to discover that I not only sympathized with the character as the novel neared its conclusion, but that I hoped things would end well for him, as well as for Gemma. As was previously noted, however, Christopher refuses to treat complex issues simplistically, and the novel's haunting conclusion left me to ponder the questions it raised long after I finished reading it.
Given its treatment of dark subject matter, Stolen is a novel for mature readers. It is also a novel that I suspect will appeal to adult audiences. Given its obvious craftsmanship, I will be surprised if Stolen isn't nominated for several literary awards in what remains of 2010.