When 16-year-old Gemma Toombs is approached by a handsome young man while waiting for a vacation flight with her parents, she is flattered. She allows him to buy her a coffee, and they make awkward small talk. But the beverage is drugged, and before she realizes what is happening, the stranger has taken her away from her family, her friends and her life, and brought her to the remote Australian Outback to live with him. As the days and weeks in the desert go by, something just as frightening as the kidnapping itself starts to occur: Gemma begins feeling compassion for and even attraction to her kidnapper.
STOLEN, Lucy Christopher's debut novel, explores Gemma's kidnapping by the intriguing but unstable Ty MacFarlane, and the fascinating response to abduction called Stockholm syndrome.
Gemma is a typical teenager, and while she has vast inner resources and strength, she is no physical match for Ty and no emotional match for the situation she is in with him. He is at turns gentle and menacing, frightening and romantic, and Gemma is not sure if she should try to kill him or attempt to understand him. Ty's story is traumatic, if he can be believed. Abandoned in the Outback by alcoholic parents and then whisked away to an orphanage against his will, he later found himself in London, looking for his mother in squats and flophouses. He lived in parks and sold his body to survive. It was during this time, when he was a teenager, that he first saw Gemma. She was just a child, and he was drawn to her and wanted to protect her. He watched her for years and then fell in love with her, hatching the plan to steal her away to Australia.
As Gemma takes in the world Ty has created for them in the middle of nowhere, she despairs. Her attempts at escape are futile and possibly more dangerous than any harm she would suffer from Ty. He captures a host of other living creatures besides Gemma. Her only other company during her ordeal is a group of caged animals: chickens he found on the side of the road, poisonous creatures he has collected to concoct his own anti-venom, and a camel he has caught and stolen from her herd. He spends the rest of his time making strange landscape art. And watching Gemma.
Christopher's story is intriguing. It is written in the second-person as a long letter from Gemma to Ty as they both wait in Perth for his trial. Her psychologist has suggested to her that she has Stockholm syndrome, a condition in which abductees begin to identify with their captors. Gemma denies this is true, but her letter makes her assertion questionable. We read how she begins to feel attracted to Ty and sympathize with him. When they are finally separated, she is upset, and as he sits in jail, she misses him as she tries to understand what happened between them. STOLEN is doubly compelling because both the central characters are far from reliable. Ty is manipulative and dangerous, and his stories may be all lies; Gemma is damaged, and her version of the events is clouded by the trauma she has suffered. But Gemma's letter, Christopher's novel, is raw, poetic and visceral.
The conflict between Ty and Gemma (and their individual emotional turmoil) is deftly illustrated in a series of metaphoric contrasts, such as city versus wilderness, England versus Australia, and parental love versus romantic love. A simplistic reading may show it to be a romantic tale of obsession and possibility, and critics may question Christopher's choice to make Ty so good-looking and sometimes charming. But that is part of the challenge of the book: Ty, no matter how he looked or what he said, is a dangerous and abusive figure. Readers must be wary of falling prey to the deception of the predator.
Overall, STOLEN is a lovely and complex novel.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on May 1, 2010