Three years after his disappearance from his hometown of Atlanta at age 11, Caleb Vincent is found very much alive, attending school and living with a doctor who claims to have rescued the boy from a pedophile ring.
Caleb, renamed Nicky, calls the man his father. Charles Lundy, aka “Jolly,” may be a kidnapper to Caleb’s parents and the FBI, but to Caleb he’s a savior responsible for ending a nightmare of brutality, abuse and drug addiction.
Atlanta writer Sheri Joseph (Bear Me Safely Over, Stray) takes this darker than dark scenario and transforms it into a searching, layered investigation of the aftermath of abduction and childhood sexual trauma.
Now 14, Caleb is reunited with his family. His mother, Marlene, whose belief that he was still alive led to addiction and an emotional breakdown, is in recovery. Her husband, Jeff, made the difficult decision to assume his son was dead and moved out with Caleb’s younger sister, Lark, when her mother proved unfit to care for her. Though they’ve reconvened to welcome him back, the arrangement is short-lived.
When the media circus that erupts right outside their house keeps the Vincents virtual prisoners, Marlene makes a rash decision: She, Caleb and Lark will take refuge in Costa Rica, where her mother-in-law and Jeff’s brother share a crumbling hotel in a cloud forest. There, Marlene hopes her two children can attend the local school, move about freely and enjoy a normal life.
For the remainder of the book, Joseph proceeds to quietly dismantle the idea of normal. How can a broken child like Caleb return to his traditional role as brother and son? How can the boy groomed to be “Nicky” go back to being “Caleb” after all he’s been through? Where does his anger, perceived as “normal,” go? To his rescuer? To his parents, who weren’t paying attention the night he disappeared?
As he and his family try to readjust, Joseph adeptly shifts the point of view between the four of them. Marlene, after three years of working closely with the FBI, is most accommodating of her son’s unique status. His father, swamped with guilt and excommunicated by Marlene for having given up hope, can’t penetrate his son’s protective shield.
Lark tries to adjust to the brother she last saw when he was her age: “It was as if some creature more endangered and exotic than the cloud forest itself had been brought into their house and placed partly in her care. She wanted to sit all day studying his secrets.”
His family seems no less unreal to Caleb — his parents occasionally “seem like very good copies of themselves planted by aliens” — and Caleb, too, feels like an impostor.
In the cloud forest, a fog-bound world as permeable as his sense of self, Caleb tries to reinvent himself with the help of a loose “family” that includes his grandmother and Jeff’s brother, Lowell, a laid-back quasi-hippie who Marlene eyes as a surrogate father for Caleb. There is a local girl Caleb’s age named Isobel, with whom he has his first kiss. Her cousin, Luis, a mercurial, cross-dressing teenager employed as a hotel maid, is a vividly drawn mirror image of Caleb who helps him deal with his “ghosts,” real or imagined.
But to a boy used to being “taken” and programmed, the prospect of making his own choices is overwhelming. Joseph amplifies his predicament through Marlene and Lark’s work with orphaned birds and animals at a nearby wildlife center, which parallels Caleb’s “imprinting” at a vulnerable age. With Jolly to guide him, Caleb was able to camouflage his otherness. If he fails to adapt to his new environment, will he run back to the man he came to view as his “true father”?
Where You Can Find Me (Thomas Dunne Books, $24.99, 336 pages) offers few graphic scenes of Caleb’s captivity, opting to respect the shaky dignity that has protected him thus far. Instead, glimpses of those years and his questions about Jolly’s guilt emerge as Caleb feels equipped to handle them — in memories triggered by his relationships, conversations with the FBI and his therapist, in the journal he keeps, and the victim impact statement he’s required to write.
Caleb wishes everyone could see him apart from “this thing.” He’s suspicious of the official abduction narrative the authorities want from him to convict Jolly: “Some things it labeled bad had helped him survive and grow, while other things with the same label, bad, had been so much worse than their code could make room for. He wanted to talk about both extremes, because those were the parts he didn’t understand …”
Joseph stresses the inadequacy of words to describe grief and trauma, and resists any easy interpretation of what Caleb and his family have been through. The strength of her novel lies in precisely this generosity and grace, a willingness to turn their strange prism of experience a hundred ways until, unexpectedly, it finally reveals a glimmer of hope.
An edited version of this review ran in the April 14 Atlanta Journal-Constitution.