The Way Back by Kylie Ladd

One of every parent’s worst nightmares: a missing child.  Does the nightmare ever end, though, even if the child returns?

The Way Back by Kylie Ladd

‘Tic-Tac shifted beneath her, blowing slightly.’

Charlie Johnson is thirteen years old when she goes missing.  She’s been on a late afternoon ride in a Victorian national park with her friend Ivy when her horse Tic-Tac goes lame.  Her friend Ivy decides to ride back to the pony club, leaving Charlie to lead Tic-Tac and follow on behind. This will be the last time that family or friends will see Charlie for four agonising months.

In this novel, Ms Ladd explores life for members of the Johnson family before, during and after Charlie’s disappearance.  We readers shift our observation of events between Charlie, her mother Rachael, father Matt and brother Dan.  We also have glimpses into a couple of other characters: Charlie’s abductor Col, and Terry, the police officer who has been involved since Charlie was reported missing.

It makes for confronting reading.  Matt, Rachael and Dan alternate between hope and despair.  Matt and Dan need to do something, whereas Rachael is almost unable to move.  And Charlie herself?   How does she face her ordeal?

Charlie manages to escape, and re-join her family.  And, for me, this is the most powerful part of the novel.  Life after such an ordeal never returns to what it was before.  How does a family deal with such a trauma? How do individuals manage to rebuild their lives?

‘Trauma stained you, it stayed with you, it got under your skin like a bad tattoo.’

Ms Ladd has written a novel about one of every parent’s worst nightmares: a missing child.  And in every case, the return of the child is what is hoped, prayed and wished for.  But as Ms Ladd portrays so well in this novel, while the child’s return may be the end of their physical absence it’s not the end of the ordeal.

Given the subject matter, this is not really a novel to ‘enjoy’.  It is a novel to read and think about, a novel that does provide both heart and hope.  I admire the way in which Ms Ladd gave a voice to each of the major characters, even Col.  This is a challenging read and uncomfortable in parts.  But I am glad I read it, and I’d recommend it to anyone who appreciates contemporary fiction about difficult issues.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith