It starts with Theo Decker sick and alone in Amsterdam at Christmas, but quickly flashes back to when he was thirteen and his mother was killed when a bomb exploded in an art museum. In the confusion that follows, and possibly suffering a concussion, Theo accepts a ring from a dying man who gives him an address and takes a small painting that his mother loved from the wall. The ring and the painting set Theo on a course that will unfold over the next fourteen years, even as he drifts from home to home.
The approach of starting near the end of the story and then working back to it did a lot to maintain narrative tension during stretches of the story that otherwise might not have appeared to have a lot going on. Sooner or later, we know that Theo is going to wind up in the middle of something serious in Amsterdam, most likely involving the painting, and the suspense builds as we wonder how he gets there. As we go, we watch how a wide cast of characters deal with the volatility of life. The most interesting is Boris, whom we first meet as a teenager when Theo lives for a time in Las Vegas, a sort of a modern Artful Dodger. Theo's PTSD and the general instability of his life after the bombing seems to have left him with a self destructive streak; Boris's similarly chaotic childhood appears to have taught him to grab everything he can from life and not to worry too much about tomorrow. Others search for stability even if it means giving up what one might call their heart's desire. And through it all, there's the mystery of the painting and what will become of it.
This is the last of the ALA Carnegie fiction shortlist books that I was able to get my hands on, and I'll be rooting for it on June 28, sitting in front of Twitter late at night because I won't be at Annual.