Monday, May 15, 2017


THE CANDIDATE'S DAUGHTER by Catherine Lea (Brakelight, 2014)

Reviewed by Jenny Argante

The plan is simple: kidnap the daughter of Senate candidate Richard McClaine, take the money and run. Nobody gets hurt, the kid goes home alive.  That’s what twenty-two-year-old car thief Kelsey Money thought she was getting into. She chalked it up to another hare-brained scheme dreamed up by her boyfriend Matt and his drug-fueled brother. Then she discovers the part she wasn’t told - that six-year-old Holly isn’t going home alive - and Kelsey makes a decision that'll take her whole world apart.

Elizabeth McClaine can't even tell the police what her daughter was wearing when she disappeared. Soon after Holly was born with Down Syndrome and a cleft palate, she was placed in the care of a nanny while her mother battled postpartum depression. When Holly is kidnapped and Elizabeth learns the detective on the case has already failed one kidnapped child, she vows not to fail hers. The clock is ticking. Both women have twenty-four hours to find Holly because in twenty-five, she’ll be dead. 

I haven’t read anything by Catherine Lea before, but I will now be eagerly checking for the next or any other book she has written. She has woven together a story that is tense, absorbing and structured cinematically by time and character perspective to hold the attention from page one until the end.

It’s a story of an optimistic kidnap that goes disastrously wrong because it’s carried out without proper planning by a moronic pair of brothers, Matt and Lionel. Matt has enlisted the help of his girl friend, Kelsey, whose own damaged past has impaired her judgement, and who comes to experience a shift in understanding and motivation as the narrative unfolds.

What lifts up this story from the ordinary is some clever plotting, and the 3-dimensional nature of main characters and support players. Each reveals to us how flawed human beings can be and, ultimately, that some of us are, if we choose to be, redeemable.

The kidnap victim herself is heartbreaking real. Holly is a six-year old Down’s Syndrome girl, and the daughter of high-achieving parents. Neither has been able to reconcile what they got when she was born with what they believed themselves entitled to. Holly is endearing and vulnerable, and she wins Kelsey’s heart.

Though this leads to a shift from being ‘one of the gang’ to the role of Holly’s defender, Kelsey is still deeply mired in the consequences of the criminal actions she consented to. How she manages to resolve this is nail-biting stuff.

Lea brings to her narrative a suspense that is tightly maintained throughout. One example is the unwelcome publicity this bungled snatch brings to senatorial candidate Richard McLaine and his wife Elizabeth and how it leads to an unravelling of carefully constructed facades, personal, professional and marital.

Brought face to face with the realisation of where they have failed, the two women, Kelsey and Elizabeth, work hard to avert pending disaster.  The end, when it comes, is a satisfying and heart-wrenching finale of losers and winners.

Because Catherine Lea has made you care so deeply about the significant actors within this compelling drama – the child Holly; reformed accomplice Kelsey and Holly’s shamed and self-blaming mother – we also care deeply about what happens to them. That makes The Candidate’s Daughter a real page-turner.

In my opinion, it would also make a great New Zealand movie. I hope some talent scout will sit down and read the book, uncover its potential and pitch it to a film director –  it’s Niki Caro or Jane Campion material for sure.

I am both a picky and experienced reader and I couldn’t put it down. Take a bow, Ms. Lea.

Jenny Argante is a Tauranga writer and editor, and a member of Tauranga Writers and the New Zealand Society of Authors. This review was first published in FlaxFlower reviews, which focuses on in-depth reviews of New Zealand books of all kinds, and is reprinted here with kind permission. 

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