Books featuring a sibling with a mental illness

Book Review: The Unusual Abduction of Avery Conifer

Content warning: Mentions and description of physical and emotional abuse.

Author: Ilsa Evans
Publisher: HarperCollins (2021)
Genre: Contemporary fiction

Beth’s daughter Cleo and Shirley’s son Daniel used to be married. Now Cleo is in gaol for supposedly contravening a family violence order, and Daniel has full-time care of their four-year-old daughter, Avery.

When Shirley suspects that Daniel is harming Avery, she enlists Beth to abduct their own granddaughter, even though the two women can’t stand each other. They are joined on the run across country Victoria by Winnie, Shirley’s own 89-year-old tech-savvy mother, and Harthacnut, Beth’s miniature schnauzer.

The abduction gives rise to crises both personal and social, as Shirley’s large and interfering family – including her toxic son – struggle to come to terms with her actions, amid a whirl of police investigation and media excitement.

I haven’t yet read Jess Hill’s See What You Made Me Do, or watched the SBS series of the same name, but I know enough about it to be reminded of it as I read TUAoAC. Evans has clearly drawn on her years of experience as a teacher and advocate against family violence, as the novel skillfully explores the nuances of Avery Conifer’s life. This review will consider each of the main characters and how Evans has positioned them to examine a different aspect of being embroiled in a family, particularly one where abuse occurs.   

Shirley

The novel opened with Shirley’s perspective and she was the character who grew most of all. As a mother, she was torn between not wanting to believe the worst of her son and wanting to protect her granddaughter. Finding Avery’s bruises was the catalyst for her growth but it took far longer for her to actively reflect on  how she may have inadvertently perpetuated and enabled Daniel’s behaviour.

Beth

Beth was the antithesis of Shirley and Evans demonstrated great skill in making their voices so distinct. At first glance, Beth does not seem very likeable because although she was motivated by her desire to protect Avery, she was also highly judgmental of everyone she met. Her experience with her husband allowed her to immediately identify the emotional abuse and neglect

Winsome

Winsome was sure to be a favourite of many readers. Ageism led many characters (including her daughter) to underestimate Winnie, but she proved to be integral to Shirley’s plan. She knew that people had low expectations of her and used that to her advantage. One of the most humorous parts of the story was the reveal that Winnie had several phones and Twitter accounts, of which her daughter was unaware.

As well as providing a voice of reason for Shirley and Beth, Winnie was also a reminder to readers that societal ideas about ageing are far from correct, and that anyone who dismisses a senior citizen as unimportant does so to their own detriment.

Avery

Despite being story’s motivating factor and the unwitting ‘kidnap’ victim, Avery wasn’t an overly strong presence in most of the narrative. She represented innocence, serving as a reminder to her family and Evans’ readers that all the personal petty squabbles between family members were irrelevant. Protecting Avery came before all that.  

In addition to the three main narrators, the story was occasionally told from the point of view of other characters, such as the police officers who were looking for Avery, the hosts of a local morning show and Daniel’s new girlfriend. These different perspectives made the novel feel less heavy, releasing some of the tension and sense of claustrophobia that built up as we followed the two grandmothers. Shirley and Beth were reluctantly working together to protect Avery and had to carefully consider their every move to avoid being caught. The other narrators – namely Daniel’s new girlfriend and the morning show hosts – lived in a world with much lower stakes, allowing the readers a reprieve from the emotional heart of the novel.  

Thank you to HarperCollins for providing me with a copy of this novel for review.

You can buy a copy of The Unusual Abduction of Avery Conifer from Readings independent booksellers.

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