Bringing the perspective to life of a happily married mother living in Bristol, Shemilt unfolds her tense mystery in varying shades. One might expect a few moments of intense confrontation--scores set to rest, a final peace with the past, and old ghosts to be retired. But in this provocative psychological thriller, Jenny Malcolm’s carefully calibrated existence is permeated with menace
almost overnight through an eerie role-reversal with Naomi, her rebellious teenager daughter.
Moving between Bristol in 2009 and bucolic Dorset a year later, Jenny
lives an isolated life in a cabin once owned by her mother, unable to fully comprehend why love, marriage and career all seem to have faded away. The crux of Shemilt’s mystery is the sudden and inexplicable disappearance of Naomi. When Naomi fails to return one night after rehearsing the role of Maria in the local school production of
West Side Story, Ted--Jenny’s doctor husban--at first proves to be a voice of calm with an edge of authority, telling Jenny that Naomi “will probably be back.” Still, Ted’s ministrations do little to ease Jenny’s incipient horror that something terrible has happened to her daughter.
As her heart beats fast, Jenny waits for the moment when the police will come to tell her they have found something “in the mud of a field, the heal of a shoe perhaps, the gleam of a silver charm, or the white of a tooth.” The days pass, and
still there is no sign of Naomi. Jenny is haunted by her inability to see the clues behind her daughter’s sudden alteration of character. Like Ted, she’s also a doctor and has been far too busy to see that, of late, Naomi
has seemed so preoccupied, tired, fed up and “a bit emotional.” She thought it was the play taking it out of her.
She fails to come up with the word that would encompass the little changes she’s noticed--the scent on her hot skin of tobacco and alcohol. While Ted tells her that it’s normal for teenagers to experiment, for poor, stressed Jenny, it’s just something else to add to of the tiredness, distance, and constant silences.
In her clever plot constructed around Naomi’s initial disappearance, Shemilt writes of a mother on the edge, derailed by personal tragedy while also forced to question every facet of her carefully assembled life with Ted, Naomi, and Theo and Ed, her twin teenage boys.
But things for Jenny are about to get even more difficult: Ed is more sullen and uncommunicative with each passing day, and Ted is beginning to withdraw. Naomi shifts in a kaleidoscope of images in which at first she’s smiling and laughing, then her mouth is open and screaming Jenny’s name.
Balanced against the chaos of a mother’s love with Bristol police’s scrupulous efforts to find Naomi, menace takes on new and threatening forms, proving more elusive and pervasive than it first appears. Apart from the cigarettes and alcohol and the way Naomi turned away when she spoke to her, what else has Jenny missed? What clues did she need to understand before it was too late? Under these terrible circumstances, Jenny catapults herself from victim to survivor and back again, persistently berating herself for not seeing the real Naomi: “The girl who wore thick makeup and a thong; drank and smoked and had sex.”
Jenny’s journey is untangling the threads one at a time and pushing away past and future lies. In considerably reduced circumstances, Jenny forces herself to accept that only a year ago she thought she had everything. Now, hiding away in the cottage in Dorset with only Bertie, the family dog, for company--and bearing the months stoically until the Christmas season when her sons will come to visit her--she’s blindsided by the notion of when her life had begun to change: “I go back over and over again to different points in time to work out where I could have altered state.” One thing is for sure: the consequences of Naomi’s suspected rebellion are enormous.
Shemilt’s story builds like clockwork, ticking towards a heartbreaking (and surprising) finale in which Jenny takes it upon herself to put the past to rest. The author beautifully captures the familiar ache of Jenny’s heart that seems to have settled deep into her bones. Layering her instinctual drama against the present and the past, Shemilt presents her heroine vividly amid her misplaced expectations and miscommunications as Jenny attempts to overcome so much tragedy to remake her life.