A Young Murderer Grows Up, and Has a Child of Her Own

THE FIRST DAY OF SPRING
By Nancy Tucker

Chrissie is that child: a maker of mischief and purveyor of compulsive lies; resident shoplifter at Mrs. Bunty’s sweet store; the class imp, rather than its clown. She is the child you don’t want to find on your doorstep, asking for your own.

She is the 8-year-old narrator of Nancy Tucker’s gripping, unsettling debut novel. She is also a murderer. We learn this in Tucker’s pulpy first sentence, “I killed a little boy today.” Half of the novel’s chapters are dedicated to the aftermath of that crime, as Chrissie evades suspicion in the midst of a shaken, claustrophobic British town. These are interspersed with the story of Julia — Chrissie’s later pseudonym, bestowed on her once she’s caught. Following years of institutional care, and with one new identity already revealed and imploded, Julia is desperate to live a structured, mundane life, for the benefit of her own daughter, Molly.

Chrissie’s observations are immaculate, loyal to her age and her desperation. Her father is absent and her mother is cruel. She is left to forage for calories in sugar packets and other children’s leftover milk bottles, starving and defensive. The most moving passages of the novel come in her scrabble to endow her parents with rational kindness. When she is in trouble, her mother simply locks her out of the house, and she must climb through the kitchen window to return. This, Chrissie reasons, is “why Mam didn’t give me much food, because she knew if I got too fat, I wouldn’t be able to squeeze through the kitchen window when I needed to. It was just her way of looking out for me, really.”

Starvation is so well captured here: the relentless, obsessive drudgery of it, “a form of madness.” Chrissie is fascinated and repulsed by bodies better nourished than her own. At first, this fixation feels excessive, exhausting. Knees are “puddingy”; a baby in a sun hat is a “fat mushroom”; mothers are described, collectively, as a “lump.” But as Tucker opens Chrissie’s small, sparse world, this too becomes pitiful. In other people’s flesh, she can’t help seeing food.

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