All That’s Bright and Gone

by Eliza Nellums
Crooked Lane Books, December 2019, $26.99

Six-year-old Aoife Joan Scott doesn’t understand a lot of what happens in the adult world, but she knows there are plenty of things that grown-ups don’t always get right. Her name, for starters. It’s pronounced EE-fah, as she must patiently explain to every new person she meets.

When her mother is suddenly hospitalized after a mental breakdown, Aoife’s whole world is turned upside down. Uncle Donny, who is funny because he says a lot of bad words, comes to stay with Aoife, but no one seems to know for sure when her beloved Mama will be able to come home. Aoife is certain that if only she can find out the truth about who murdered her older brother Theo, Mama will be happy again and not confused anymore. Together with her mischievous imaginary friend Teddy and Hannah, the eight-year-old girl next door, Aoife is determined to unravel the mystery of what happened to Theo. Then her mother can come home in time to see the fireworks at the lake, a promised event that Aoife has been eagerly looking forward to all summer.

Aoife’s determination to be as brave as her favorite saint, Joan of Arc (whose saint’s day is her birthday), keeps her going even when she’s in a scary situation. And she “knows how to keep a secret, just like a grown-up.” Aoife perseveres, undaunted, through a car ride with one of her murder suspects, an interview with child protective services, a séance, and a midnight excursion around the neighborhood all by herself, finding clues in unexpected places.

Both precocious and plucky, Aoife is a winning and memorable heroine. Her story, told in her own unique and sweetly funny voice, illuminates the conflicting feelings that bind—and separate—family members and complicate communication. She begins to learn that truth has many facets (especially for grown-ups), that some secrets are worth keeping, but others hurt until they’re shared. Her journey toward understanding the tragedy that transformed her family and helping its members begin to heal is deeply moving. All That’s Bright and Gone is an impressive debut filled with true-to-life characters.

Jean Gazis
Teri Duerr
December 2019
Crooked Lane Books