Here Lies Daniel Tate by Cristin Terrill has a great plot: Missing kid turns up years later, but can’t remember much about his past. Bit by bit, he tries to understand his family and what happened at the time of his disappearance. My first thought was The Face on the Milk Carton for a new generation!
No. But it’s much worse than that. The real plot is something else. Con man fakes being a missing kid now in his teens in order to get out of trouble. The main character in the story is a liar. Usually, a story involving an unreliable narrator leaves you questioning everything you just saw or read. If this was what the author was going for in this particular tale, for me it fell flat. The first few chapters promised a roller coaster ride that never really manifested. I read about halfway through in one sitting…and then forgot entirely about the story for days before realizing, “oh, yeah, I never finished reading that.”
So what went wrong? First, I just want to say that All Our Yesterdays, also by Terrill is fantastic. That story had me transfixed. With Here Lies Daniel Tate, it seemed like a great idea that wasn’t executed well. The characters were always viewed from a distance by our narrator, and because of that an emotional link is missing between the characters and the readers. The swearing annoyed me, but most swearing in books and movies does. I can understand trying to be realistic, but for me, it just got in the way of the story.
All that aside, after page 100 or so, Here Lies Daniel Tate gets really boring. Nothing happens. Okay, he goes to school, that’s what happens. And for writers, this is death, your story dies if your readers lose interest. Finishing the book was torture, it was no fun to read the rest and I didn’t understand why a vital component was left out: Keep your audience on their toes. Always make things happen faster or before the audience thinks they should. This rule applies especially to modern audiences, many of whom, like me, have a short attention span. I think a good editor would have spotted this problem. A good editor would have also spotted that unreliable narrator set up at the beginning, never delivered the twist calling the whole story into question. An author that does twists extremely well is Ian McEwan of Atonement fame. For a case study in unreliable narrators, please read that book or even just see the film. Another wonderful unreliable narrator book is The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan, and I reviewed that a February or two ago. I’m not saying every unreliable narrator has to end the tale with, “whelp, I lied…or did I?” but it’s just so, so much fun when they do.
Here Lies Daniel Tate had potential that was never realized, and I sort of wish we could dump it in the time machine from All Our Yesterdays to rewrite itself and try again.