Crocodile, by Daniel Shand, is a disturbing and utterly compelling tale of a preteen struggling to cope with her upbringing. The story opens as the girl, Chloe, is taken from the home she shares with her mother to stay for a while with her maternal grandparents. Unsure of what is happening, or why, she detaches herself from reality – a strategy she uses when her surrounds become too difficult to bear. Chloe’s mother, Angie, drinks heavily and often has men round to stay. Sometimes the girl is left home alone. Chloe has learned that it is better to deny feelings and never to say what she thinks.
The descriptions of the grandparents offer a picture of the elderly from a child’s perspective. This couple may not be regarded as particularly old in age by adults but close proximity to their wrinkles and aroma provide an unfamiliar experience for Chloe. She wants to return to her mother, whilst recognising that what they had was often hard to deal with. She places an imaginary camera above the scenes she is participating in and ponders if, in that moment, they could be perceived as a happy family.
When out shopping with her grandmother Chloe worries that she will be spotted by girls she knows and regarded as having no friends. When three local boys start to talk to her she is careful to lie about why she is here. It is clear from the conversations that the boys are equally eager to portray a false impression of their abilities and experiences. The group mess around and challenge each other. Chloe is horrified by some of the behaviours she finds she is capable of emulating.
The reader observes the adult world through the eyes of a child who is trying to understand what their life may become in the future. Chloe listens to others talk, watches how adults act when drinking and in company, remembers her mother. She practices what she will say before daring to speak, concerned about reactions. When thoughts become too difficult she puts great effort into smothering them.
The first part of the book offers a picture of a summer away from school, of burgeoning friendship and the dangers children present to each other in their quest for acceptance and admiration. The second part details what happens when Chloe is reunited with her mother. Angie seeks solace but can neither recognise nor accept when others care for her. This second section enables the reader to better understand Chloe’s demons.
The writing is stunning, intense and horrifying in its plausibility. At times there is more suggestion than detail but it still becomes clear how Angie and then Chloe have been treated. They long for the edited highlights of a happy family, yet family dislocation and denial is at the root of their distress. Each are offered potential lifelines they have little concept of how to grasp.
A well structured, multi layered, strikingly honest evocation of the damage caused by dysfunctional people and how this can impact those with whom they come into contact. Emotive and affecting whilst somehow retaining a chilling detachment, this is an impressive read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Sandstone Press.