2017 Reviews · Australian · contemporary fiction

Release Day Book Review: The Way Back by Kylie Ladd

Title: The Way Backthe way back small image

Author:  Kylie Ladd

Published: August 1st 2017

Publisher: Allen & Unwin

Pages: 336

Genres:  Fiction, Contemporary

RRP: $29.99

Rating: 4.5 stars

All she wanted was to escape. But why does she still feel trapped. A gripping psychological drama by the author of Mothers and Daughters and Into My Arms.

Charlie Johnson is 13 and in her first year of high school. She loves her family, netball and Liam, the cute guy who sits next to her in Science – but most of all she loves horses and horse-riding. Charlie’s parents have leased her a horse, Tic Tac, from the local pony club, but one day they go out for a ride in the national park and only Tic Tac returns…

Four months later, long after the police and the SES have called off the search, Charlie is found wandering injured and filthy, miles from where she was last seen. Her family rejoice in her return, but can anyone truly recover from what Charlie’s been through? When a life has been shattered, how do you put the pieces back together?

My review:

The Way Back is the devastating story of a thirteen year old girl, who is trapped for four long months by a misunderstood recluse and how she miraculously escapes her captor. This defining event and the aftermath of such an ordeal, especially the emotional impact, is at the centre of Australian author Kylie Ladd’s latest novel. The Way Back is tribute to and a sensitive portrayal of victims of abduction, who bravely make the return home. Within her narrative, Ladd articulates the important fact that the nightmare for kidnapping victims is not over once they escape. Rather, victims and their loved ones face a life that is irrevocably changed by their harrowing experience.

Charlie Johnson, a thirteen year old high school student, is a happy, friendly and fun-loving teenager. Charlie comes from a stable family environment and loves nothing more than to ride on Tic Tac, a horse she leases through the local pony club. A late afternoon horse ride with a fellow pony club member Ivy turns into a nightmarish and life changing event for this innocent thirteen year old girl. When Tic Tac becomes lame on their ride, Ivy makes the decision to ride back to seek help at the stables, leaving Charlie alone in the bush. As the sun sets, a lonely and mentally challenged man embarks upon an opportunistic crime. He abducts Charlie and imprisons her in the stable attached to his isolated bush shack, simply because he wants to stroke her hair. Days turn into weeks and weeks turn into months, as Charlie is neglected by her Col, her captor. She is left cold, starving, unwashed and unattended for days on end. Meanwhile, her family, friends, the SES and the police plod on, in an endless search for Charlie’s whereabouts. Eventually, Charlie summons the courage from deep within one day and devises a bold plan to escape the clutches of Col. In the aftermath of her escape, Charlie and her family face many more dark days ahead, as they all struggle to adjust to a life shattered by an unthinkable crime.

The Way Back is the second novel I have read by Kylie Ladd. I have a couple more of Kylie’s novels sitting on my shelves that I am now prompted to get my act together and read after finishing this brilliant novel. It is hard to believe at times that The Way Back is a work of fiction. The content of the book is so vividly realised and psychologically insightful that it does read much like a non fiction memoir. In fact, I drew comparisons between The Way Back and Hope, a book I read that details the abduction of three young girls in Cleveland. It is also book that places the reader in a confronting situation, how would you respond as parent or as the victim to abduction such as Charlie’s? It makes for an emotionally fraught read and a novel that I imagine would not have been easy to process to write. It certainly forced me to consider my own response to the situation Ladd presents to the reader.

The Way Back is a comprehensive novel that covers all bases. Kylie Ladd ensures that she gives a voice to the many different people who are directly involved in Charlie’s abduction. This begins with the family unit ripped apart by the loss of a daughter and a sister. The sense of spiralling helplessness the Johnson family experiences is expressed well by Ladd. The investigative perspective of the police force and SES volunteers who work tirelessly to try to find Charlie is carefully covered by the author.  Ladd also examines the feelings of the pony club members, Gia, Ivy and Hannah, who hold guilt, as well as hope over Charlie’s disappearance. Then there are the everyday members of the local community, such as Charlie’s high school French teacher, who Ladd makes us see have all in some way been touched by this terrible crime. Finally, there is the powerful portrayal of Col, the perpetrator of Charlie’s crime, who I was never quite able to understand his reasons for taking Charlie. We do have inkling that he is mentally incapacitated, possibly by a defining event in his past which leans towards a level of sympathy being directed towards this uncharacteristic bad guy. Col’s voice is one that is overwhelmingly tinged with sadness and a lack of compassion.

The account of Charlie’s incarceration in the stables of Col’s home was harrowing and realistic. In this account of a kidnapping, Ladd treats these sequences with a careful balance of compassion, respect and detailed insight. This is a book with much heart that challenges you to feel deeply and think beyond the surface. There were some passages in the novel that sickened, angered and moved me to tears. At many points I felt a strong sense of protection towards Charlie and I prayed she would find the strength or opportunity to break free from her captivity. The most overwhelming emotion I felt while reading The Way Back was a gut wrenching level of sadness. I watched on in disbelief as this innocent and carefree girl had her innocence and bright outlook in life viciously taken away. But Ladd sensitively balances this out with Col’s almost childish inability to understand why Charlie won’t play his game. This is perhaps where Kylie’s Ladd’s background in neuropsychology comes in to play. She is unafraid of tackling the parameters of such an event and I believe this takes much skill as a writer.

The setting of The Way Back has an important place in the novel and the prose attached to these compartments of the novel are brimming with a dichotomy of beauty and danger. The Australian bush area situated in a Victorian national park is the prime location for the events in the novel. Its harshness, isolation and the dangers that bask in its remoteness form an integral part of the narrative. Ladd manages to show us the natural beauty of the national park area where Charlie is taken, but at the same time, she highlights how the expanse of the landscape means that evil can be easily concealed.

A shocking but well drawn portrayal of the terror a young girl and her family endure for months forms the moving new novel from Kylie Ladd.  In no means is The Way Back an easy read, but it is a thoughtfully written novel that is both gripping and challenging. It strikes right at the heart of family relationships and opens up the recovery process that follows after a kidnapping victim makes the difficult journey home. Although The Way Back covers a traumatic experience, there is a glimmer of hope at the end of this novel, which I grasped onto firmly. I gave my own children an extra hug after reading this novel, thankful for their safety. The Way Back is a book I highly recommend, especially to those who appreciate the challenge of a carefully written and quality contemporary Australian fiction novel.

*I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review via Goodreads and the publisher, Allen & Unwin.

The Way Back, by Kylie Ladd is published in Australia on the 1st August 2017 by Allen & Unwin. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here.

To learn more about the author of The Way Back, Kylie Ladd, visit here.

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