Local writer Claire Wilkshire’s debut novel follows its title character Maxine as she tries to carve out a new life for herself. Following the death of a close friend Maxine decides her life is going nowhere and it’s time to quit her job and write that novel she’s occasionally thought about writing. This was a hard set-up for me to accept because Maxine doesn’t seem to have made any effort at writing in the past – no short fiction, no freelancing, no mention of even a blog or a box of teenaged love poems hidden under her bed. It seems unlikely to me that someone with no background and experience as a writer would suddenly decide to drop everything and write a novel, but when I mentioned this quibble to other people, they said they know people who’ve done that in real life, so it may not be as far-fetched as it seems. It did, however, have the effect of making it hard for me to believe in and empathize with Maxine, and since most of the novel takes place in her head, this was a major roadblock to my enjoyment of the book.
Despite this, I was quickly drawn in to Maxine’s relationship with her neighbours’ nine-year-old son, Kyle, after she takes him sliding to help the neighbour out and Kyle wanders away. The absolute terror and panic of losing a child in a public place, layered with the fact that it’s not your child and you don’t feel competent around kids anyway, was completely real and believable to me. It probably helped, also, that Maxine loses Kyle in a place I’ve often taken my own kids sliding so I could picture the scene vividly — the sense of place was created far more effectively for me in this scene than it was at other points in the novel. Maxine’s unfolding relationship with Kyle and his parents is the core of the novel and was often both amusing and rewarding. I found the direction Maxine’s writing career took far less rewarding, particularly after a plot twist so unbelievable it left my head spinning. I realize it was meant to be played for humour but I think bringing the funny in a highly realistic novel like this is a fine line to walk — scenes have to be ridiculous enough to be funny yet realistic enough to keep the characters real and believable. That’s a difficult balance and I don’t think it was always successfully done here. But the core relationship between Maxine and Kyle, exploring how a child can help an adult see the world afresh, is well depicted. Again, I had quibbles at the end with what I thought was a difficult-to-believe resolution to the story, but I found the ride there often enjoyable.