Written by Dan Smith — Leaving behind the tropical locales of his previous works, Dark Horizons and Dry Season, Dan Smith’s third book, The Child Thief, is set in western Ukraine. It’s a harsh winter in the 1930s with communist troops scouting the area for villages to ransack, and paranoia lurking in every near-destitute household.
The Child Thief opens with the figure of man lumbering out of the snow. Worn down and exhausted he is dragging a sledge behind him, which contains the bodies of two dead children, towards the isolated village of Vyriv. He is spotted by Luka, a Russian war veteran, now settled to the life of a farmer with a wife and children of his own. He takes the stranger into his home and tends the gunshot wound on his body, wanting to find out his story when he has recovered. The children’s corpses bear terrible injuries, consistent with cannibalism, and once the other villagers become aware of this their fear drives them to mob justice, which Luka is powerless to stop. They drag the stranger out into the snow and lynch him.
Once the frenzied attack is over the ringleader Dmitri realises that his little girl is missing and the man they have killed must have been innocent. Luka is the only person in Vyriv capable of tracking the child thief across the treacherous terrain, so he strikes out with his sons and Dmitri, driven by a promise made to his daughter to bring her friend home safely.
Quickly Luka realises that the man they are hunting is no ordinary criminal. A skilled survivalist and shooting with a technique honed through warfare, he is playing with them, drawing them out into the open at will and approaching their camp unseen. The hunters become the hunted but to what purpose Luka doesn’t know. As they move deeper into the frozen countryside they become aware that the child thief isn’t the only threat in the snowy forests. The Bolsheviks are closing in, clearing villages and killing without mercy, creeping towards the families Luka and Dmitri left behind in Vyriv.
Dan Smith has created something special with The Child Thief. It’s a crime novel with enormous narrative drive and he maintains a sense of uncertainty right up to the final, exhilarating pages. But there are big themes here too, man against nature, the responsibilities of family and the dehumanising effects of warfare on civilians and soldiers alike. The political situation of 1930s Ukraine is well handled, with the Bolsheviks operating as a more ominous threat than the man Luka is hunting; Smith’s knowledge of the period shines through here and gives real weight to the story.
The Child Thief is a page-turner of the highest calibre. Atmospheric, beautifully written and thoroughly engrossing, it’s a real miss-your-stop novel, and it promises great things for Smith’s next offering, which is set during the Russian Civil War. If you’re a fan of historical novels you’ll find this several cuts above the norm and if not prepare to be converted.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars