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Fiction has gone a long way in the last twenty years to highlight the problems faced by children with behavioral problems in particular those with Aspergers or on the Autism scale. While I applaud many of the writers who handle such subjects with real sensitivity I can't help but wonder whether research can take the place of first hand knowledge, so when I saw this book in the library and read a little about the author, I was both intrigued and pleased to see that the author is writing a fiction book with first hand experience.
Cammie McGovern is a writer with several novels and stories to her name. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband and three children, the eldest of whom is autistic. She's also one of the founders of Whole Children, a resource center that runs after school classes and programmes for children with special needs. Concerned with the rising number of autistic children and the mystery that still surrounds the condition, her novel Eye Contact explores what could happen with a child caught up in a situation where they cannot express themselves clearly. If you may forgive the pun, this book is a real eye-opener and without casting any shadows over other writers who have attempted something similar, this is in my mind, the real thing.
Plot and Overview.
For any mother to be notified that her child is missing would be heartache enough, but when Cara learns that her son Adam has gone missing with another little girl, Amelia, her world is rocked to it's core. For Adam isn't a typical nine-year-old, he is autistic and attends a special education class in a local school, and its something that is nearly impossible to consider since he's not a child to hide or walk away. Besides, he and other children with special needs are closely watched. However, worse is to come when a little girl's body is found in the woods near the school and Adam is alive and nearby. While Cara tries to help the police with Adam, he is locked into silence, something that happens with traumatized children, and even more so for a child like Adam.
While Adam is not a suspect due to lack of motive or any forensic evidence, its clear that he knows something that could help catch the killer, but unlocking his silence is not an easy task and when another, older child goes missing the enquiries are stepped up. For Cara it's a nightmare but people do rally around to help her, some of them have their own agendas, some are merely hoping to gain admiration and some are genuinely upset for the single mum and her only son.
The story follows the investigation but also takes a look at the background behind Adam's birth and the friends that Cara once had who are now absent. While Adam's innocence is never in doubt there are things about him that his mother didn't know, things she feels she should have known like Adam's strange friendship with the murdered girl. His ability to break the rules and evade his teachers and aides to get to the woods without being seen. Cara is forced to re-evaluate everything she knows about her son and face the fact that he has moved on without her knowing. For a woman struggling to cope and give her son the best help possible, has she missed something important and can that progress Adam's made be recovered under such horrendous circumstances?
In her acknowledgments and notes on the book, Cammie McGovern explains her love of thrillers and stories that she can read when she gets a chance with three children demanding her time. She likes mystery books and tells the reader that life with an autistic child can be a mystery as well. That's what inspired her to write the book and she's used her own experiences as a mother and a member of a special community where people do help each other, to show how fragile the bond can become with mother and child.
This gives a sense of reality to the characters that I've rarely found in any similar book. Adam is a child who has formed his own routines and doesn't make friends easily. Autistic children are still a novelty to many readers and the author manages to explode a lot of the myths around such children that we see both Adam and some of the other special needs children in the story as children first, with individual personalities. Yes, they do need more attention and care, but the wrong sort of attention leads to misunderstandings and bullying that affects the way they interact with others. There are some characters in the story that muddy the waters by trying to help, but this makes things more interesting.
Cara is complex and her early childhood gives rise to some of what will happen later on so I can't give much away. She's sensitive and caring but sometimes blind to other people's needs. It makes her lose a best friend though there are solid reasons for the split. She's always been a single mum and with her parents dieing young she is very much on her own with Adam and she's only thirty years old. You want to help her see things a little clearer and yet her love for her child is a beacon in a dim world of pain and sorrow.
I think the other characters give a vibrancy to parts of the book where it could easily have got bogged down in explanations and this allows for some wonderful characters, both children and adults. The theme might be dark but the willingness of people to help set things right is an affirmation of the goodness inherent in many communities once they get to know the people involved.
My Final Thoughts.
This is a book that can and probably will sell itself on its own merits. The story is rich and complex at times, but never loses its main theme, which is solving a mystery and helping a child and his mother. Naturally we feel for the murdered child but if people were more open, then maybe things like this would not happen so much. That's a part of the story and the rest is really about the characters, so the book moves at a fast pace and is hard to put down.
I didn't feel that this was another attempt to bring autism to the notice of the public, though it's not a bad thing if people see it stripped of mystique. It's carefully plotted, driven by both characters and plot and is a satisfying book in it's own right. I thought it a great read and one I would say most sexes would be comfortable reading. At 292 pages in paperback it's about a two-day read for most people. I read it in just under 6 hours stretched across two days.
Published by Penguin books it retails at £6.99 UK price.
You can pick this up on Amazon for less and it would be a bargain.
Thanks for reading.
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