I'm reminded of Melinda Marchetta's Jellicoe Road, which has a dual narrative. In Whaley's novel, well at least at the start, we read alternating chapters featuring a 17-year-old named Cullen Whitter who lives in a town in Arkansas and a young missionary in Africa who's looking for meaning in his life. Two lives set continents apart. And this is one of the reasons that makes this novel suspenseful: how on earth could the author establish the connection between these two completely disconnected story lines.
I think most readers would be able to identify with Cullen. He's your typical introverted American teenager living in a very small and dull town. Cullen's life soon becomes non-typical, with the disappearance of her gifted younger brother and the appearance of the Lazarus Woodpecker (long believed to be extinct) in their town. In Where Things Come Back, it is the woodpecker which somehow symbolizes the hope that things and people can come back. It's a pipe dream though, as the woodpecker is never actually seen and Cullen's brother won't be coming back ever. (Of course, I don't want to spoil the reason for his brother's disappearance.)
But everything ties up so neatly that I was surprised at how logical all the connections were. You know the gripe some people have with George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, wherein he kills off his major characters just when you've started rooting for them? Well, Whaley pulls something like that in his debut novel. Characters take several steps back for other characters to play out their roles. The young missionary dies midway into the novel, paving the way for his college roommate to bring the novel into a climax.
A lot has been said about this debut novel. Where Things Come Back did win the 2012 Michael L. Printz and the William C. Morris Debut awards. Totally deserving, if I may say so. And if you're looking for a heartbreaking and beautiful read, this novel might just be it.
Read this book if:
- You like debut YA fiction.
- You've lived in a small and idyllic town yourself.
- You know that everyone deserves second chances.