Allen and Unwin
Reviewed by Lorraine Cormack
Reading Taken Away was a rather unexpected experience, largely because the blurb on the back bore very little resemblance to what the story was actually about. It was quite a good story, and I enjoyed the novel; it’s just that it was not at all what I had anticipated.
The story opens in 1974 on the night that Dom and Pat’s senile grandmother burns down their house. They weren’t rich to start with, but now they have nothing. The family must essentially start again, and to do so they move into the house they normally rent for holidays. It’s not much fun living in a holiday house when you’re not on holiday. A lot of the flaws that you never notice when you’re in a good mood and the place is bursting with relatives suddenly become obvious.
To put it bluntly, Dom and Pat are lonely, and the whole family is unsettled, with their mother particularly miserable. It doesn’t help that their father must leave for days at a time in order to return to his job. Pat soon realises that there may be an even bigger problem. He and Dom are both having nightmares, although it’s not clear they’re about the same thing. Dom claims not to even remember his, but he talks in his sleep, so Pat knows about them. And then Pat sees who Dom is talking to in his sleep: a hideous, frightening goblin boy.
Pat doesn’t know what to do. How to articulate this to anyone when even Dom doesn’t believe him? What does the soldier he dreams about have to do with the goblin boy? And does the drowning old man that Pat and Dom rescue have anything to do with either of them?
This is quite a fast moving novel. Kiernan puts forward a lot of questions, but she also begins answering them quite quickly. Although a tense novel, events unfold quite quickly. This isn’t one of those novels where people hang around looking ominous for weeks or months. Dom and Pat find themselves right in the middle of things within days.
There is a good reason for the novel to be set in 1974, although I won’t reveal it as it could be construed as a plot spoiler. However, there is a side benefit in that the world of the 1970s adds to the atmosphere of the novel: it was easier to be isolated, teenagers often had less to entertain them, and it was more common for mothers not to work outside the home. In a way, it was also easier for teenagers to feel displaced; moving house put them a long way away from everyone and everything they’d known, with no internet, email, or mobile phones to close the distance. All of these things add to the feeling of a small, enclosed world with little opportunity to look outside for help.
Pat is the narrator and one of a number of major characters. He is perhaps the strongest, because we’re inside his head. We vividly feel his fear and confusion, his desperation, and his determination to somehow find a solution to the terrible situation they find themselves in. Although Dom is perhaps a little less vivid than Pat, we are given a strong picture of twins who are starting to become more individual than they were as young children, while still having an extraordinarily strong link.
Other characters are well drawn and believable, not only as individuals but in terms of their relationships as well. In particular, Pat’s family are all drawn as credible individuals, but we also understand the family dynamics and find it very easy to believe in their interactions. It feels very real.
This is a very intense novel which focuses to a very large degree on the relationships between people, notably Dom, Pat, the goblin boy, the soldier ghost, and an old man. To some extent, therefore, the setting is merely functional; what Kiernan needs to make this story work. However, although not much time is spent on it, the setting is credible and enough detail is given for us to feel anchored in a time and place.
Taken Away may, I think, be intended as a young adult novel. The protagonists are young teenagers, and the writing style and length of the novel tend to suggest an eye to younger readers. It would certainly suit such an audience; it’s tense and taut and young readers would have no trouble empathising with Pat. However, it would also suit an older audience. They would probably find it a faster read, and likely would notice more of a sense of familiarity given the difficulty of being truly original when writing a ghost story. Other than that, older readers should also appreciate the strong characters and sense of tension.
This was a good novel. As noted, it wasn’t at all what I expected from the blurb. However, it’s a strong novel. Despite the challenges of writing an original ghost story, the focus on relationships makes this stand out from the crowd – it has something a little extra and more powerful than the average ghost story. The strong characterisations also help to engage readers strongly in what happens.