When her eldest son was diagnosed with autism at age three, writer Cammie McGovern did what many mothers in the same situation do: she became a student of the mysterious developmental disorder, devouring the available literature on autism, learning of the therapies, interventions, and even diets that promise help or offer hope.

Now McGovern, who earned an M.F.A. at the U-M, has drawn on those experiences to write a novel. Eye Contact manages to be many things at once: literary yet fast paced, a study in character and community, a persuasive thriller that also informs readers on a worthy social issue — educating and caring for children with special needs.

The story centers on Cara and her nine-year-old autistic son, Adam. In the book's chilling opening salvo, Cara learns that her son has gone missing from recess with a classmate, Amelia. Hours later, Adam is found hiding in the woods — and nearby lies his young friend's body. Amelia's murder appears to drive Adam even farther into his silent world. But Cara soon realizes that in his own way, Adam understands what he has witnessed, and is capable of providing fragmented clues that might help solve the crime. As she works to help police decipher those clues while protecting her son, Cara also struggles with her personal demons.

Like many other thrillers, Eye Contact relies on rapid-fire shifts in point of view. But here that structure also functions thematically, neatly mirroring the fragmentary nature of Adam's mind, which can record the most minute sights and sounds with astonishing acuity but fails to piece them together in ways the rest of the world recognizes. The device parallels the challenges and incremental achievements that, less dramatically, children like Adam experience every day in the real world.

As in her first novel, The Art of Seeing, McGovern shows keen sympathy for marginal characters — the shy little girl, the underdog, all those kids in special ed. Bullying figures prominently and painfully in this book, and McGovern's sharp ear for schoolyard vernacular is on regular display. When Chris, an older special-needs student, is seen searching through garbage as part of a science project, he endures merciless teasing. A well-meaning teacher suggests he avoid such behavior in the future, and Chris fires back, "I'm hardly going to do it again now, am I? After the whole school has gotten their jollies out laughing at me. I may look retarded, but I'm not."

It's a small moment that reflects McGovern's strengths: crisp, snappy dialogue, a sharp retort that delivers a character's unexpected self-knowledge and pain with a touch of humor. It's one of many fine touches in this provocative and engaging literary thriller.

Cammie McGovern will be reading from and discussing Eye Contact at the Arborland Borders on Wednesday, September 27.

[Review published September 2006]