As in her memorable first novel, The Guilty One, Ballentyne used the separation of place and time in a contemporary drama begun years before, adding emotional context to a love affair gone wrong and a woman’s long-repressed childhood memories. Life’s complexities define the experiences of particular characters, events linking 1985 Glasgow with current-day London, each protagonist bringing a different perspective to a tragic family saga. The long tentacles of the past reach into the present for Margaret Holloway, a teacher caught in one of the most horrific multiple car crashes on a London expressway in 2013.
Trapped in her vehicle as fire spreads along the line of damaged cars, Margaret is unable to escape, certain she will die. Out of nowhere, a stranger appears, attempting to shatter her window. Covered in hideous burn scars, the man persists in his efforts, their desperation blinding Margaret to anything but his selfless efforts, the ruin of his face insignificant. He finally frees Margaret, though badly wounded himself. Later, Margaret returns to the hospital, determined to learn the identity and condition of the man who saved her life. In an induced coma, the
good Samaritan’s fate is uncertain, his injuries dire. Learning his name--Maxwell Brown--Holloway carries on a private vigil for the stranger, soon a familiar face as the days pass.
Margaret’s life changes after the ordeal. She feels suddenly unmoored,
disconnected from husband and children, bits of memories drifting randomly
through her mind. Terrified by this unease, Margaret intuitively begins to
dismantle the wall her subconscious has built to shield her from a past
traumatic experience. Her mother dead, the only resource Margaret has is a box
of personal paper stored in the attic of her elderly father’s house. Buried in
the detritus of her parents’ belongings, her mother’s keepsake box may hold the
key to learning “everything she forgot.”
While Margaret’s life is in London, events in 1985 are the crux of the novel: a drama begun in Glasgow, Scotland, and the more remote Thurso, where various characters react to the kidnapping of seven-year-old Molly Henderson on her way to school one morning. There have been other local kidnappings, Molly perhaps another victim of a serial kidnapper. While Molly’s parents grapple with the daily agony of their grief, larger-than-life George McLaughlin’s unhappy tale unfolds. Youngest son of a brutal Glasgow crime boss, George’s size belies the kindness in his heart, his only true tie to his mother, who dies young. He falls hopelessly in love, anxious to marry the girl, a union doomed from the start. As his dreams unravel, he is crushed by the loss of Kathleen and his plans for a different life: “A man dies more than once in his life.”
Journalist Angus Campbell provides a third point of view, his ambitions fueled by a fanatical devotion to strict Biblical tenets and a fervent belief
that he is ordained to find little Molly Henderson. Blinded to his own faults, Angus is driven by a moral judgment of the man he seeks, pursuing the case on his own, a suspect and a story already written. Past is joined to present through the experiences of three protagonists, an exploration of the joys and miseries of existence, the ebb and flow of meaningful events, dreams both cherished and lost, the final reckoning of death. In her compassionate yet fearless rendering of this tale, Ballantyne fulfills the fiction writer’s mission, turning people and events into a memorable portrait of humans at their best and worst.