I recently read Nothing to Lose by Alex Flinn, and was hooked from the first chapter. What made me pick up the book, actually, was the premise (i.e. the setting). It’s not everyday you find a book that’s set in a carnival, and that setting has delightfully endless potential to tap into.
The story is about a seventeen-year-old boy, Michael Daye, whose mother remarried after Michael’s father died. She married a renowned lawyer whom everyone thinks is too respectable to do anything wrong – including abusing his new wife.
Michael tries to make his mother leave him, but for the financially stable life Walker provides for mother and son, his mother is resolute against leaving Walker. Michael finds himself unable to do anything but watch over his mother in case his stepfather hurts her again. She’s not allowed to leave the house or pick up phone calls unless it’s from Walker, and Michael hates what Walker’s done to his mother, but there’s nothing he can do.
Finally, he decides that his mother chose this life for herself, and therefore doesn’t need him anymore. He leaves home and joins the travelling fair, where practically everyone there has a secret of their own, but the thing about the carnival that Michael likes is that no one asks questions.
But what his fellow carnies don’t know is that Michael is on the run – from the law. His mother was convicted of murdering Walker, and to protect her son, she tells him to run as far as he can, so far that no one would suspect his involvement in the murder.
A year later, the truth starts to catch up with Michael, and soon everyone in the travelling fair has gotten wind of Michael’s past, forcing him to leave the carnival lest he implicates them too.
Flinn’s prose is light, tight and fleet-footed, thereby keeping up the pace of the story. However, she doesn’t compromise on the emotional element of the story. Michael falls for a fellow carnie, Kirstie, who is also running away from her own problems at home. And as a writer who’s recently just started experimenting with writing from the male point-of-view, I learnt quite a bit about how a guy might see a girl and subsequently fall for her. Michael’s more sensitive than my Drew (from Lambs for Dinner), but less so than my Jerry (from Red December Skies), I feel. Over the past year that he’s on the run, he’s forced to be independent and guards himself well against people, but doesn’t lose the ember of sentimentality that is congruent to his protective streak over his mother.
So Michael, in the end, has to choose between returning to Miami to defend his mother or tell the truth about what happened that day she killed Walker, or stay on the run with Kirstie. The twist at the end put a smile on my face, because it was well-delivered and delightfully shocking. The decision Michael made in the end – leaving Kirstie – didn’t sit quite well with me, because I’m a sucker for romantic happy endings, but Flinn delivered a hell of a novel, for sure. Even at only 200 over pages, it made for a quick but highly rewarding read, well-paced and that also made sure every scene and description was relevant.