There's no messing about in Patricia Tyrrell's The Reckoning. Where others might laboriously set up the strange triangle which props up this novel, Tyrrell establishes immediately all we need to know. Cate, 15, was abducted 12 years earlier by a drifter called Les. Every so often, out of a skewed sense of duty, Les phones Cate's mother with news. Now, however, Les wants to give the girl back.
This is 73-year-old Tyrrell's second novel. The author, half-English, half-American, self-published 300 copies of The Reckoning. When this trim book was short-listed for the Encore Award, publishers suddenly jostled to sign her up.
You can see why. Ever since The Catcher in the Rye, writers have been seduced by that wise innocent: the disturbed teenage narrator. Recent examples - The Lovely Bones, Vernon God Little and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time - have done extremely well.
Where Tyrrell scores is in catching the rhythm of Cate's sympathetic voice. She manages to nail that strange mix of adult knowing and childish need. If her hillbilly heroine sometimes sounds a mite grown-up, it's hardly surprising. She has lived her whole life in the company of an adult who taught her everything.
With her tangled hair and even more tangled moral code, Cate seems as weathered as the Arizona desert where she has lived. She has slept with boys since she was 13 and driven a truck since she could reach the wheel. She may be uneducated, but Cate understands loyalty. In a strange twist, it is Les she loves.
At the start of the novel he is her father, mother, friend. Now Les wants out. Tyrrell's storytelling spins on revelation but she doesn't keep us guessing. By page eight we know that a man called Jeff has given these hobos a pressing reason to leave. Cate says, "If anyone'd find out about him dying and they'd ask me how it felt to kill someone, I'd need to say, Astonishing, that's how."
There's plenty more to surprise Cate, from her growing affection towards her brisk English mother to her realisation that Les has a past involving violence and alcohol. Cate has to re-learn the rules of kinship and re-establish who she is - poor trash shifting between welfare offices or middle-class daughter of a jewellery designer?
Les tells Cate that "unhappiness takes people various ways". It's the closest he comes to accounting for the terrible thing he did in stealing her. It explains why her biological father, convinced his daughter was murdered, cannot accept her reappearance, and why her mother is desperate to welcome her back.
There are a few plot developments that feel strained, but it's hard not to be won over by tough-talking, tender Cate.
In recognising the pain and struggles of those around her, she experiences more than reconciliation and reunion. Cate's journey takes her to emotional maturity, as the best teenage narrations so often do.Reuse content