It’s a compelling opening for a novel: on a sunny afternoon, six-year-old Brennan Allister is riding his bike around his affluent neighbourhood when he disappears. Hours later, bruised, bitten, and wearing only his underwear, he stumbles out of a trailer belonging to Belle Dearing, an eccentric old woman whom neighbours refer to as “the hermit.” The police arrest Dearing “on suspicion of assault and sexual interference.”
Rather than focusing on the crime and the investigation, however, Toronto writer Sherri Vanderveen’s skilled debut novel uses Allister’s disappearance as a loose framework upon which to hang Dearing’s story. On the surface, Dearing is a familiar character; every community has its own “crazy old woman” who wanders the streets talking to herself, who has a drinking problem and a house falling down from neglect, whom the local children call a witch, and whom local parents warn their darlings to avoid at all costs.
No one is born a “crazy old woman,” however, and Vanderveen skillfully exposes the roots of Belle’s eccentricities and despair. From her painful childhood as an outcast in Newfoundland to the early death of her father, and from her ill-fated, too-early marriage to her blissful and misguided involvement with the artists and lovers of the hippie movement, Dearing emerges as a scarily realistic figure, deeply flawed and off-putting, but sympathetic nonetheless. She is all too human, and a reminder that nothing is as it seems on the surface. The central mysteries of the book – why did Dearing take Allister? what happened during the hours he was missing? – are answered not by the police investigating the crime, but by Vanderveen’s careful, almost clinical examination of Dearing’s life.
Vanderveen writes with a clear, workmanlike prose that rarely draws attention to itself. While the subject matter lends itself to histrionics and sentimentality, Vanderveen resists the temptation. Instead, she allows Dearing’s story to unfold naturally, with an organic pacing leading to a genuine and moving conclusion. It all makes for a powerful work and a most impressive debut.