In Hayton’s (Found, Near Water, 2014, etc.) latest novel, a 14-year-old New Zealand girl, dead for 10 years, tells the story of how her body came to lie beneath a half-finished house.
Three years after a 2011 earthquake in Christchurch, rebuilding is still ongoing. Workers lift a home off its foundation to repair the cracked earth beneath, and Daina Harrow describes workers exposing her skeletal remains: “Broken along a prior instability. That’s where I am,” she says. In explaining what led up to her death, Daina tells what initially seems like a familiar story: a neglectful, single alcoholic mother; poverty; bullying students; clueless adults. Readers may think it easy to guess at how she winds up where she’s found—but author Hayton, as she did in her excellent first novel, complicates her story well beyond the predictable. (Christine Emmett, the main character of Found, Near Water, even makes a tangential appearance here.) Daina undergoes physical mistreatment, but she also begins having hallucinations: the colors of her face run, and she can taste sounds. Are her friends poisoning her? Is she going crazy? What really happened when she was 5 years old? And can she trust the Grey Man, who assigns her daunting tasks? With courage, intelligence, and resourcefulness, Daina tries to do what’s right. Her story fully comes together only on the final page, and Hayton does a masterful job of keeping the pieces in play before then. In some superficial respects, the novel resembles Alice Sebold’s 2002 bestseller, The Lovely Bones, which is also narrated by a dead 14-year-old girl, but Hayton’s sensibility is tougher-minded, more honest, and stranger. Daina’s bitterness, her longing to be seen and known, and her helplessness are strikingly, utterly real; in some ways, she’s already a ghost before she’s dead. As in her earlier novel, the author makes fruitful use of the Christchurch earthquake as a metaphor: disruption is violent but revealing. Her characterization is quick and effective but also thoughtful, avoiding stereotype; the school admissions secretary, for example, who at first seems a spiteful martinet, turns out to have surprising heart and grit.
A haunting novel that’s both tough and delicate and fulfills the promise of the author’s first.