I’m not one of those people who read the last page first, but I do tend to skip paragraphs sometimes, or look to the bottom of the page when I get to the end of a chapter so I can see the cliffhanger. I always go back and read what I glossed over, but sometimes I just can’t help myself. And it’s not a common thing: it only happens when I can’t wait to find out what’s going to happen next. I take it as an indication that I’m so into the book that I want to read it faster than I’m capable of doing.
This was the case with Ryan Casey’s new release–and first novel–What We Saw.
I’ve mentioned Casey on the blog before, with a review of his short story collection, Something in the Cellar. What We Saw is in the same vein–a nice suspense story with a few twists. Casey is really damn good at writing tension, and this book is chock full of it. When I got to the end of Chapter 7–even though I’d suspected what would happen–I had to put the book down for a minute to catch my breath. After that, it never lets up–I read more than half the book in one sitting. This is the kind of novel that readers search for: it grabs hold and doesn’t let go until that final page–and even then, it keeps you thinking.
What We Saw concerns two young boys, Liam and Adam, cousins on summer break who are (for differing reasons) living with their grandparents. Liam’s parents make a small appearance and there’s much talk (which I won’t spoil) about Adam’s family. The grandparents are colourful characters as well, and there’s another child, Emily, who serves as a call to action and a love interest–but really, it’s the boys’ story. They want to be detectives, spending their time solving mysteries around the campground–and their aspirations get them thrown head first into a mystery that’s much much bigger than them.
To go into too much detail would spoil the plot. Suffice it to say there’s a missing girl (not Emily), hints at violence around the campground, and some untimely deaths. There’s no lack of suspects, either–the campground seems filled with people who are up to some sort of mischief, and they boys have a lot to keep them on their toes. There’s a lot that would make this a great mystery book, but it’s much more than that.
The great thing about this book is that it’s written from a ten year old’s point of view. This creates a special kind of tension, where the narrator knows more is going on than meets the eye, but can’t quite put his finger on it because he’s just too young to understand. He’s neck deep in “grown up stuff,” and though he wants to help and understand, he’s kept at arm’s length by virtue of his age. This isn’t for a lack of trying–it’s just because he’s never had to deal with these kinds of things before. In that, What We Saw is a terrific example of a coming of age novel, though that’s not the focus.
What all of this does is help keep the mystery fresh. Casey is able to add details that, if the protagonist were an adult, would make the mystery easy to solve–and if you go back through the book reading it through the eyes of an older person, those clues were there all along. But because you’re reading the book through the eyes of someone so young, you feel like you’re reaching after something that’s on the tip of your tongue. You know what it probably means, but you’re just not sure…and it’s not until the end of the book that Liam is able to string it all together.
I don’t know if this was intentional or not, but it seems to be a very effective way of stringing the tension along. The tension is real not only because the characters don’t know what going to happen next, but because they don’t understand why people would do such things; they’ve still got a foot in their childhood, and their naivety is colouring their approach to the situation. Better still, all the adult characters have adult motivations. The children can only guess at them, and this adds a lot of uncertainly to their deductions. They quickly realize that they’re over their heads, but not before it’s too late to walk away. This raises the stakes considerably: it’s like you’re blindfolded at the top of the first hill on a roller coaster and have no option but to fall to the bottom, hoping you don’t fall off the rails.
But besides the characters and the mystery, the thing I get most from this book is how genuine it is. The characters act like children; the adults act like adults; there was nothing in the book that asked me to suspend my disbelief. The characters are emotionally involved, and the stakes are very real. This sounds like a list of things that should be in every novel, but browning through the stacks at any bookstore will show you how many books lack this kind of attention. Casey has tied everything into a nice package, and the result is a well rounded story that feels very real.
Which, of course, makes all the tension all that more powerful.
There’s a lot to like about What We Saw, and it’s an impressive first novel for Casey. This is a writer to keep an eye on–you can expect great things down the line.
You can find Ryan Casey at his blog and on Twitter. Pick up What We Saw on Amazon for Kindle and in Paperback, and at Barnes & Noble in paperback. Don’t miss out on this book if you don’t have a Kindle–Amazon has Kindle Apps that run on your PC, Android and Windows tablets, iPhones/iPads, and even from the cloud on their website! And don’t forget to check out his other releases Silhouette and Something in the Cellar here.