Bree T's Reviews > Ghost Child

Ghost Child by Caroline Overington
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Apr 12, 2011

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bookshelves: australian, crime
Read on April 02, 2011 — I own a copy

In November 1982, police are called to a residence in an estate an hour out of Melbourne where there are reports of a small child having been assaulted. The story coming from the mother is that she sent 5 year old Jake Cashman and his brother, 3 year old Harley, to the shops to buy cigarettes. They were approached by a stranger who asked them for change, and when they refused, he assaulted Jake, knocking him to the ground and kicking him. Harley was able to escape, run home and raise the alarm.

The Cashman children are distinctive – very pale with white hair, they are the sort of children that the proprietor of a shop would remember. When the local one is questioned and has no memory of the children at all, the police are aware that there are glaring holes in the story. Jake passes away the next day from his injuries, caused by blunt force trauma and the surgeon admits that he has noticed indications of other abuse, older wounds that have healed, probably without medical assistance. Immediately suspicious eyes turn to the mother – only 26, 4 children to 3 different fathers, none of whom are in the picture. New boyfriend, only on the scene 6wks with no job who spends all day getting high and has been known to slap the kids around already.

No one is surprised when both the mother and her boyfriend are sent to jail – after all in most cases of abuse concerning children, it’s someone the child knows. The remaining three children are taken into care – 6 year old Lauren, 3 year old Harley and 18 month old Hayley. While some attempts are made to keep them together they’re halfhearted at best and the three children are soon shipped off to different homes – one is lucky enough to land in one foster home and stay there. One goes to a distant relative until that breaks down and then a foster home. Another bounces from home to home before going into independent living at just thirteen.

Twenty years later and the oldest, Lauren has made a new life for herself in a new city. When she is embroiled in a new court case in her job as a nurse’s aide, it isn’t long until the truth about her past surfaces, despite the fact that she has changed her name now. This new court case will catapult her into the spotlight again but it will also force her to confront what really happened that day to her brother so long ago.

This book was heartbreaking – no other way to really describe it. Firstly, the death of little boy Jake, unmarked except for an indentation on his head, from blunt force trauma, the knowledge of the reader immediately that what happened is not the story the mother is saying. You see cases like this in the news every other week and the reaction is always the same.

It’s a story of hopelessness on so many levels – the start in life those children had, in a 3 bedroom house in a controversial estate, to a tired single mother who was happy with any man around, no matter how unattractive a prospect he might be. But it’s what happens to those kids afterwards, after their mother goes to jail that takes up just as much time as the telling of Jake’s incident and death. They are separated the Department of Children’s Services (DOCS) – Lauren goes from foster home to foster home, finally being shoved into independent living in first a hotel then a caravan park when she is barely a teenager, Harley goes to a foster home that raises him as their own and with people that he comes to view as his parents and Hayley, who as the youngest and least likely to remember her previous life and therefore you’d think would settle the best, goes to a distant relative, then into foster care. She’s a troubled child, forced by the Department to visit her mother in jail despite the fact that it’s clearly not healthy for her, and grows into an even more outrageous teen despite the best efforts of a seasoned foster carer.

DOCS are a controversial outfit here in Australia. Known as DHS (Department of Human Services) where I am, it is responsible for the welfare of children when their parents are unable to provide it. However when you read stories like this, it’s not hard to see Overington drawing on real life circumstances using her background as a journalist. This novel is as much about the failure of welfare organisations as it is about child abuse. Told from a staggering number of points of view, each one is still given its own voice and they serve to tie all the threads of the story together into one well rounded narrative that give you all the facets of this upsetting story, Overington focuses on Jake’s surviving siblings and the effects that both what happened to Jake and the upheaval it affected on their lives had on them as they grew up.

The result is powerful, confronting novel that you cannot put down. The storyline isn’t as truly shocking as I Came To Say Goodbye but it’s compelling and disturbing in its own right. I didn’t expect a feel good novel and I didn’t get one – they should really come with a warning that you will get the opposite of the warm and fuzzies throughout most, if not all, of this novel. But it will make you think and the story will stay with you long after you finish the last page.
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