I suspect an epigraph is more likely to capture the author's intended theme than a back cover blurb, particularly when the genre is ambiguous.
Tom Patterson's first book, Missing, is classified as non-fiction but crafted as a novel, with an epigraph chosen from T.S. Eliot's poem of spiritual renewal, "Little Gidding", the last of the Four Quartets: We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.
In May, 2021, a national magazine published Patterson's true-life account of the 2017 disappearance of Mark Day, who had lived rough for 30 years in the wilderness country of NSW, southeast of Armidale.
It's a story spanning the sadly unfulfilled life of a gifted youth caught in a cycle of drugs and alcohol, before choosing to live as a hermit, perhaps in search of redemption. Patterson grew up in the New England region and knew Mark's family. He often walked the wild country but never came across any sign of Mark. The magazine story became the basis for this book.
And it's a good one - a vividly affecting study of how the truth can be explored authentically through the mirror of fiction technique.
Mark's parents, Phil and Esma May, had built a life together in Armidale, "a medium-sized town, set high enough for snow gums to grow, but not cold enough for snow to settle".
Serious Catholics, children soon arrive, seven boys, each named for a saint. They are bright children; John, the eldest is a gifted mathematician, with two more becoming doctors. Mark is the second eldest, more interested in the arts and English, and inclined towards dreaming and introspection in the face of parental and sibling complexities.
A schoolboy prank involving stolen alcohol, and time spent in boarding school, help fan the sparks of an escapist imagination that will predicate Mark's life.
He thrives academically and is offered arts-law at the ANU, but is already sliding towards drug addiction and the solace of isolation.
Despite attempts to settle, including a stint as a public servant in Canberra, he eventually retreats to the solitude of the Oxley Wild Rivers National Park, growing marijuana and keeping his own counsel.
Stockmen mustering cattle know of his existence but consider him harmless, and there is intermittent family contact. But then a prolonged silence sends his two doctor brothers on a mission to find him.
This fiction-structured true-life story beautifully captures the love and sorrow of a family divided by well-intentioned aspirations.
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