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STEPHEN KING ONCE WROTE that an opening line should scream: ‘Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.’ ‘[I]t is a little like trying to catch moonbeams in a jar.’ Well, Chris Whitaker in his first novel, Tall Oaks, certainly does all that: we’re gripped right from the start.

Tall OaksFrom the very first page, when we experience with Jim the utter horror of a mother watching her child being abducted, we’re drawn in and Whitaker builds on this, beautifully constructing his mad, mad world of small town America, a place seemingly normal at first glance, but more Arsenic and Old Lace, The Postman Only Rings Twice or Short Cuts on closer inspection.

Taking us on a veritable roller coaster ride, Whitaker introduces us to a host of colourful, finely etched characters in quick succession, most initially defined by their physicality until we know more about them and the dark secrets that many hold. He moves effortlessly between extreme farce – which sometimes shouldn’t work as it is so obvious, but really does in a laugh-out loud, belly ache kind of way – and utter terror and despair. The dialogue is often fast and furious, full of wise cracks and jokes that flow so naturally from the characters that it’s easy to forget that Whitaker’s a Brit and not a homegrown American.

Motherhood and the relationships between mother and child are explored through many different characters and avenues, not least through Jess, the mother of three-year-old Harry, and this is something which the author discusses further in the piece following this review.

While comparisons have been drawn between Whitaker’s novel and the work of David Lynch and the Coen Brothers, for me Tall Oaks really brings to mind the wonderful Screwball Comedies of the 1930s and 1940s and the brilliant, brilliant novels of Jonathan Latimer and others of his ilk (many republished by No Exit Press). That’s a true testament to Whitaker’s skill as a writer, that and the fact that he effortlessly holds our attention to the very, quite shocking end.

This is a brilliant first novel – entertaining, funny and also strangely charming, and I write that knowing how odd that sounds when the central thread is the abduction of a three-year child. It’s actually the best thing I’ve read in quite a while and I, and I’m sure others, very much look forward to Chris Whitaker’s next novel – and the film of Twin Oaks, if that doesn’t come first.

 

Tall Oaks by Chris Whitaker • Ebook • 7 April 2016 • ISBN: 978-1-7857-7031-9
Published in paperback in September 2016.

 

Chris Whitaker kindly joins us in The Literary Lounge. Welcome, Chris. Motherhood and maternal relationships are really important in your book, please can you tell us a bit more about ‘a mother’s love’ in Tall Oaks?

 

From Eva, in We Need to Talk About Kevin, to Adora, in Sharp Objects, to Michelle, in Case Histories, there have been numerous memorable literary mothers over the years, and the maternal bond is something that features heavily in Tall Oaks.

Jerry and his mother

Jerry lives with his overbearing, terminally ill mother. Forced to adopt the role of her carer, since his father died Jerry has very much become the centre of his mother’s universe. But that’s not say she’s appreciative. She belittles and criticizes his every move. Whether it’s his choice in clothes, his battle with his weight, or his passion for photography, she has an opinion, and it’s rarely a good one.

I was careful not to make Jerry too much of a victim. He definitely knows right from wrong. I wanted to show that he was aware of the way his mother treats him, but was overly keen to attribute her cruelty to the brain tumour she’s suffering with. It’s clear though, when he recounts his past, that she’s never been the loving mother he imagines she was.

Jess and Alison

Jess is the mother of abducted three-year-old Harry. She’s very much a woman living on the edge, spending her days searching for her son, and her nights in the beds of strangers. Since the abduction she’s moved into her mother Alison’s house, and finds it increasingly difficult living under Alison’s frantic scrutiny. Alison, for her part, doesn’t know how best to deal with the burgeoning nightmare that each new day without her grandson brings.

I did lots of research before writing about the missing child investigation. I read interviews with the parents of the missing, and tried to convey just how horrific the situation must be. Tall Oaks is set three months after the abduction, which took some of the urgency away, leaving me free to explore the relationship between Jess and Alison once the hope begins to fade. I tried to imagine what it would be like for Alison, watching her daughter self-destruct and not knowing what to do for the best. There’s a part in the story where she takes down all the photographs of Harry, because she believes Jess can’t cope with seeing his face every day. Jess calls on her on it and it further strains their relationship, which by this point is very much broken, with Harry’s safe return seemingly the only hope of fixing it.

Manny and Elena

Manny is seventeen, about to graduate from high school, and has grand plans to shake down the town of Tall Oaks. Following an unsuccessful attempt to emulate Rocky Balboa in the sport of boxing, he’s now taken to dressing as a gangster, much to the despair of his long suffering mother Elena.
I really enjoyed writing Manny and Elena. They have such a great relationship. Manny is fiercely protective of her, to the point where he reports every man she dates to the police! When writing from Elena’s perspective I tried to imagine what is was like for her raising a son that reinvents himself every few months. Aside from how frustrating it must be, with his constant swearing, and his abundance of bravado, I wanted to show that she knows he’s still just a kid struggling to find himself following his father walking out on the family.

LS: Thank you, Chris, for sharing this with us.

 

 

The above review is published as part of the Tall Oaks’ blog tour. For the other participants and reviews, please see the following poster:

Tall Oaks Blog Banner

 

Image and text credits: Images courtesy of Emily Burns, Head of Publicity, Bonnier Zaffre, who we also thank for including us in the book blog tour. Book quotation text: Copyright © 2016 by Chris Whitaker. Stephen King, from ‘Why Stephen King Spends Months And Even Years Writing Opening Sentences’, The Atlantic, 23 July 2013.

 

Also of interest: ‘Antonia Hayes’ Relativity – when good people do bad things’; ‘A.D. Miller’s The Faithful Couple – a tale of friendship, rivalry and regret’; ‘An Alaskan Epic – Rosamund Lupton’s The Quality of Silence‘; ‘The beauty of Sara Taylor’s The Shore, a breathtaking debut’, ‘“Amethyst and flowers on the table”, the beauty of Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie and Lowell, a review‘.

 

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