4th Estate, £5.99stg
Kimball's debut has been roundly praised but, having read it, you can't help feel like the friend who's just heard the best-kept secret only to wonder what all the fuss was about. Split into two distinct narratives, the book follows the experiences of a family of two adults and two children as they flee across the US in a bid to escape the death of their baby son/brother from some kind of fever.
The first narrative comes from the older brother's perspective, the second from the young sister's and it is to Kimble's credit than he can split the book 50/50 between each of them and still keep you focused on the page in front of you. The brother's recounting of events however, is by far the more satisfying of the two because it is easier to understand. Written in the rawest of child language, the sister's is dense and requires constant re-reading to make sense of paragraphs. As with any child language, repetition is constant – many times you feel as if the children have made the same point from chapter to chapter and will continue to make the key one – that the family is falling apart – constantly in the pages ahead. That you stick with them says a great deal about the images Kimble conjures up in between their mixture of confession and confusion.
Because of the plot and the experiences the family have on their journey (selling possessions so they can reach the next town up the road), you spend over half the book thinking that you are crossing the scorched earth of Depression-era America. It is when the mother becomes pregnant again and is brought to hospital the little girl explains that "boxes with lights count your heart inside you" and this well-worked-in revelation makes the story all the more baffling and harrowing. The fact that other people seem to be criss-crossing the US in their cars makes you wonder whether the story is set during a plague or modern era economic crash, but the backdrop is never properly explained and you're more likely to hold it against Kimball than thank him for it.
As the 'family' edge ever closer to the promised land on the other side of the US, your overall feeling is that of watching a visually stunning film with no sound and a four-year-old in the seat beside you providing the running commentary. Kimball's book will either reel you in or wind you up, but either way you'll come away thinking you've shared time with someone who'll be on shelves for many years to come.