Each year renowned best-selling Christian author Jerry B Jenkin’s Christian Writers Guild selects a novel as the winner of their Operation First Novel contest. Aspiring writers of Christian fiction worldwide who have yet to be published submit their carefully assembled words, hoping that they will become the first published novel from their pens. In 2008 C.J. Darlington’s Thicker than Blood was chosen as the prize-winning entry, and it has been published by Tyndale House this month.
As a contributor to the Christian entertainment website she co-founded TitleTrakk.com, I had some mixed feelings about agreeing to review Darlington’s work. What if I didn’t like it? Would my review affect our working relationship? And after all, Thicker than Blood isn’t written in one of my favorite sub-genres. Ultimately I proved unable to resist the opportunity to read a story revolving around a fellow bibliophile, and the newly published words of a woman I’ve come to respect. Thankfully, I needn’t have worried; Darlington’s debut has made a fine showing under my critical appraisal.
I’ve read a handful of Operation First Novel winners in the past. Some have been good, some have been lacking, but Darlington’s entry into the world of Christian fiction is interesting and solidly written. Borne from a premise that’s been fomenting in her mind since her first efforts to put it on the page as a 15-year-old homeschooler, Thicker than Blood is a story of estranged sisters drawn together by desperate circumstances.
Tapping into the ongoing vein of novels about book-lovers, Darlington’s protagonist – the down and out Christy Williams – works for a used books dealer, and is cutting her teeth in rare, antiquarian titles acquisitions. A string of poor choices that began with her abandonment of her younger sister May 15 years ago, culminates in her employer discovering a planted rare, stolen title in the backseat of her car.
Having been involved in antiquarian book dealing for over a decade, Darlington’s details of Christy’s work are both authentic and educational. In sharp contrast is the simple, hard-working life of her sister May who has come to know Jesus in the years she’s been separated from Christy. Her life on a financially struggling ranch teem with life-like detail that I found wonderfully appealing as a woman who came to farm-life as an adult, much like May. Once reunited, Christy still has demons to face – her addictions, and the threat of danger that a potential stalker brings with it.
While certain elements of Thicker than Blood tend to move the story closer to the Christian mystery/suspense drama, it’s clear that this debut is truly a relational novel that relies upon rather dramatic events to build character growth and development. It’s always fairly obvious who are villain is, and there are no major twists and turns in the storyline. Darlington’s true focus is upon tenderly developing the themes of familial love, reconciliation, forgiveness and faith. This she does well, and it's no wonder I cried.
Darlington does leave at least one significant loose end dangling, which makes me wonder if she has a sequel planned, or if this is the last we’ll see of Christy and May. Either way, I’m happy to recommend Thicker than Blood for readers on the prowl for a moving novel exploring both the destructive and life-giving ties that bind. Congratulations C.J.!