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Originally published Friday, August 8, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"Without a Backward Glance": the aftermath of abandonment

Kate Veitch's remarkable new novel, "Without a Backward Glance," is part mystery and part psychological study: Why would a mother leave her children, and on Christmas Eve?

Special to The Seattle Times

Author Appearance

Kate Veitch

Will read from "Without a Backward Glance" at 6:30 tonight at Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way N.E., Lake Forest Park; free (206-366-3333 or www.thirdplacebooks.com).

"I'm just going to get some lights for the Christmas tree."

With that announcement, Australian mom Rosemarie McDonald leaves her four children, steps into a car that has just pulled up outside the house — and never comes back.

Kate Veitch's remarkable new novel, "Without a Backward Glance" (Plume, 371 pp., $14), traces the four children's footsteps — and their parents', too — from that 1967 Christmas Eve to the present, some 40 years later. We find out why Rosemarie left, and what terrible damage her actions wrought in the family she left behind. It's partly a mystery novel: How could anyone disappear so thoroughly, and how could she abandon her family on Christmas Eve, of all times? But it's also a psychological study of the boundaries of selfishness, and the devastation created by abandonment. All four children have packed up their bitterness and their inadequacies in one way or another, but the repressed anger and corrosive feelings leak out into nearly every aspect of their lives.

There's the eldest daughter, Deborah, who became the de facto mother when Rosemarie bolted, and who has now become an obsessive, angry adult whose workaholic life leaves little room to focus on her failing marriage. Her brother James, now a successful artist, has a doting wife who has succeeded Deborah in the role of taking expert care of him. Ronald, a schoolteacher and the family worrier, asserts control over his own life with obsessive-compulsive behavior. And the youngest, Meredith, is an irresponsible alcoholic who drinks away any unpleasantness in her life ("I decided to stay the baby!" she declares as an adult).

Veitch's omniscient narrator moves us into each of the McDonalds' lives, creating complicated and interesting characters with a sure hand. She shows how the four grown-up children react when their father, Alex, the good-hearted and plain-spoken older man whom Rosemarie abandons along with the kids, begins forgetting and misplacing things. Now about 80, Alex is suffering from dementia, and this feels like a new abandonment to his children — all of whom have trouble facing the fact of his diagnosis.

Things really start getting interesting, though, about one-third of the way into the novel, when a frankly unbelievable coincidence (one of Veitch's very few plot missteps) connects James with his runaway mother during a visit to England. How did Rosemarie (now called Rose) get to England, and with whom — and most of all, why? James is torn between his delight in his newfound mother and his distaste for what she has done, especially when Rose answers that long-held question, "Why did you do it?"

Veitch's ear for dialogue, and her ability to illuminate inner thought processes, both seem like the attributes of a seasoned novelist — but this is her first book. Already a best-seller in Veitch's native Australia and in Germany, "Without a Backward Glance" shrewdly illuminates the damaged lives of the abandoned children and their spouses, and the coping strategies they have evolved (for good or for ill). Deborah, stuck with the maternal role for so long, has a huge store of bitterness that too often shows itself in bossy, snappish remarks. James avoids conflict and takes refuge in his hobby, swimming. Robert's insecurities have practically taken over his life, and Meredith — in perpetual denial — thinks that if she just pretends, her father's dementia won't be real.

The novelist's particular gift is to make you care about all the characters, even the unlovable ones, and to see things their way. The result is a book that's decidedly a cut above the usual summer-fiction beach read.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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