Review: One Thing Stolen by Beth Kephart

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Hardcover, 272 pages
Published March 31st 2015 by Chronicle Books
Source: ARC from Raincoast Books

Shhh, I told Maggie. Listen.

Because somebody was high up, above our heads, singing this sad gospel song. Somebody was there in the garden of the dead besides the two of us. We saw the laces first, dangling through the leaves. We saw a long silver ponytail dangling, too, and the bill of a blue cap, and then, stretched out the long way across a limb, we saw the man himself–dress in a navy-blue jumpsuit like he had escaped from some labor camp, maybe a prison. He’d pulled his cap down, bill to the nose. He sang like a bird sings, and Maggie and I stook in the shadows of one of those little granite houses and listened.

Leave it to you, Maggie said, after he’d finished his song and gone silent. After we’d slipped out of the shadows and started walking home.

Leave it to me, what? I said.

You always find the pretty things, she said. Pretty is your future.

This is what I’m trying to say, what I want you to know, what I want you to tell them when I am gone, because this bad thing is happening to me: Once I had a future.

One Thing Stolen by Beth Kephart is narrated by Nadia Cara, the very smart daughter of a professor, and someone who is, even though she doesn’t know the official name for it, suffering from some kind of neural disease. Though her thoughts are usually unaffected and furiously active, her ability to talk is slowly disappearing. She cannot find the words to match the thoughts and sometimes her thoughts are too amorphous to find tangibility in whatever little language is still available to her.

Her father uprooted their family to take them to Florence, Italy for a year during his sabbatical so he could research and write about the flood that decimated Florence in November, 1966. But I felt that the tragedy of the flood is secondary because the novel is narrated by Nadia and she is becoming fragments of the person she used to be. She steals things that catch her eye not because of mercenary desire but because she can’t help it. She makes nests, and if you are like me and have no idea what nest art is, here is a picture:

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Nadia is compelled to weave nests from whatever materials she can get her hands on and in the small apartment she and her family live in, her room is kept locked and private so she can indulge in her compulsion to weave/make nests. Her family observe her increasing eccentricity and at first put it down to a phase but as her health deteriorates, they become aware that there is something very wrong with Nadia.

…and I remember something Dad read to me once about the flooded River Arno. How when it is filled with broken things–trees, bridges, mirrors, paintings, wagons, houses–it looked like it had been nested over by a giant flock of herons.

My mind is a nest built by herons.

My thoughts are broken things.

There are two recurring things in this novel: Nadia’s sudden and complete obsession with a local thief that no one except she can see, and her intense memories of the times she spent with her best friend, Maggie. Nadia uses her connection and her memories of Maggie to keep herself anchored to her rapidly distorting reality.

Each memory is unwrapped, explored and detailed to get the greatest taste out of it and it is is easy to see the bond between the two girls through those memories. When the family finds out that Nadia has frontotemporal disorder, and Nadia sends an SOS text to Maggie, the narrator of the novel changes to Maggie who travels to Italy to be with and support Nadia.

Maggie throws all her efforts into helping Nadia remember who she is, helping her keep herself connected to her reality even though the disease continues stealing parts of her inner self. Even though everyone else believes that the flower thief was an illusion created by Nadia’s sick mind, Maggie does not and works hard to find the boy so that Nadia may have a little preview of an ever after.

The novel is not perfect and in fact I felt that some of the voices narrating the story sounded a bit too similar. However, with Kephart’s signature lyrical prose leading the way, this exploration into friendship is an important one. I did feel that maybe the focus could have been on either the flood or the neural disorder and not both because I felt that the flood was not elaborated upon or had as much significance as I wished it could have. This is simply because the Nadia’s disorder is so important and complex it takes up the majority of the narrative space.

One Thing Stolen has a lot to offer. It is set in a non-North American setting and it deals with issues not common to realistic fiction. It is a brave piece of literature and I do recommend it.