FREEDOM’S CHILD JAX MILLER
HARPER COLLINS 2015 357pp
First, I should declare an interest. I know the author. I first met Jax almost three years ago at a session of the Irish Crime Writers’ Group. She read an extract from her then work-in-progress (not “Freedom”, btw). What she read out was exciting, with a masterly use of language, particularly in the dialogue – New York Smart. She had that essential component for a writer, difficult to define, to capture a scene and bring it to life in a few sentences. If successful writing is ninety eight percent perspiration and two per cent inspiration, it struck me then that Jax had that two per cent and more. There was raw talent there.
“Freedom’s Child” is her first book to be published. I read it at a sitting. The last time I did that was with Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” It’s a riveting story, with a great hook in the opening line “My name is Freedom Oliver and I killed my daughter.” It’s not exactly crime – though there’s plenty in it, including an impressive body count. It’s a thriller, certainly, but essentially it’s the story of a mother , hard done by life and circumstances, looking for her missing daughter.
The daughter (and a son) was given up for adoption at birth by Freedom, who was facing a murder charge in New Jersey for a crime she didn’t commit, killing her husband, a corrupt cop. Eventually acquitted and exonerated she then finds the adoption process to be irreversible. Moreover her in-laws, essentially a criminal gang, are seeking revenge, and she is obliged to enter a witness protection programme. When we meet up with her, eighteen years after the event, she has, not surprisingly, buried herself in booze and drugs in a remote part of Oregon. When she learns simultaneously that her in-laws are gunning for her and know her location, and that her daughter has gone missing from her religious fundamentalist foster parents – the action begins.
And what action! It’s difficult to avoid clichés like “ page turner, riveting, gritty, emotional roller coaster, raw, unputdownable, tough as nails.” It’s all of those. Lee Child is quoted as describing it as “original, compelling and seriously recommended.” It’s all of that. To reveal any more of the plot would be to introduce spoilers. But two examples of her style merit noting. The language is quite superb – one of Jax’s strongpoints from the beginning. It’s the language of the street, not pretty but real and evocative, as in: “The day’s as grey as the cigarette smoke from a whore in Times Square on a frigid January morning.” And secondly there is a short chapter, shot through with black humour and empathic compassion, featuring Freedom’s encounter with a neighbour, a harmless, hopeless, Alzheimer’s sufferer, neglected by her “snot-nosed daughter”, with “ business skirts so tight that they apparently choke off the blood to her conscience.”
For a first novel “Freedom’s Child” is particularly strong, quite the best debut thriller I’ve read since Roger Hobbs’ “Ghostman.” It’s far from perfect, but which novel isn’t. The story is at once too full and too empty; there’s enough plot for two novels and a central episode in the book that is extraneous. The main settings are familiar territory. Some of the characters are caricatures at best, stage props or stereotypes otherwise. But none of this diminishes from a highly readable, racy, pacy story. Freedom herself is well drawn, warts and all; she’s not the most appealing of characters but she’s easy to understand. She’s like the book itself – beautiful it isn’t; compelling it is.
Highly recommended – and not just because I know the author!