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by Dan Smith
Orion, May 2012
368 pages
12.99 GBP
ISBN: 1409142620

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

The year is 1930, the place is Ukraine. Veteran soldier Luka and his family live quietly in an obscure village, hoping the Soviet authorities' brutal enforcement of agricultural collectivisation will pass them by. However, life changes rapidly when a barely-alive stranger arrives pulling a sledge bearing two dead children, one of whom bears terrible wounds.

The villagers condemn the stranger without a hearing, but a then young girl, Luka's niece, Dariya, goes missing. As the only skilled tracker in the village, Luka and his sons set off in pursuit. It soon becomes clear that the abductor has many of the military skills possessed by Luka himself. Before the rescue can be accomplished Luka runs foul of Soviet forces that could consign him to the gulag or worse. Luka will need all his experience to bring Dariya out safely and reunite his family.

THE CHILD THIEF makes enough references to the circumstances of the time to make the setting a credible one, and the challenges of coping with an eastern European winter are convincingly portrayed. Whilst the motivation and behaviour of Luka's key enemies might be seen as somewhat implausible, nonetheless the story as a whole hangs together and there are certainly enough reversals of fortune to generate excitement about the outcome. However the strength of the book lies more in the mind of Luka.

The story is related through Luka's eyes, in the first person, which brings his thinking to centre stage. Having fought in three different armies over many years, he is a man experienced in war and knows both the techniques of combat and the feelings which accompany it. While he is weary of conflict, he is well aware that the skills of his adversary could mean death for himself or his young and inexperienced sons if he allows his attention level to drop. At the same time he is sensitive to his sons' different personalities, and their need to express themselves and develop their own survival skills. At the core of his mind is an awareness of the choices people are forced to make.

The selection of the Soviet state in the 1930s might be thought to be an unlikely one for an exploration of the theme of choice. Participants in the Great War were dragged along by events. While there was room for individual action in the revolution which followed, the masses were again largely at the mercy of the thrust of history. In the turmoil it was unsurprising that a monster like Stalin should have emerged on top, and that the system which arose would crush any tendency to weakness. Dan Smith's message seems to be that even under the most adverse circumstances, there is always the possibility that compassion can be found. For that reason, while THE CHILD THIEF is very dark in places, the message of the book is ultimately an optimistic one.

Chris Roberts is a retired manager of shopping centres in Hong Kong, and now lives in Bristol, primarily reading.

Reviewed by Chris Roberts, June 2012

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