In segments of “before” and “after,” Doughty’s provocative novel explores the devastation of losing a child. Nine-year-old Betty has been a balm to her troubled mother’s heart since Laura Needham’s husband, David, left to begin a new life with Chloe and their new baby, Laura’s dreams of love and family precipitously shattered. With baby son Rees and Betty, the spurned wife finds a way to continue without her husband. But even the heartbreak of divorce pales after the day Betty and her best friend fail to show up for dance class. As the hours pass and the girls are nowhere in sight, dread turns to panic. A knock on the door by police officials confirms Laura’s fears: Betty has been hit by a car, killed instantly, her friend in critical condition.
Everything falls into segments of before and after: life before the knock on the door, before David abandoned his family for another, after the stifling quiet of a house without Betty, after thoughts of a careless driver leaving two little girls bleeding in the street. Doughty’s rendition of this tragedy is a masterful balance of Laura’s expectations around love, marriage and children and the bitter days of grief, from David’s agonized howl when the parents meet over their daughter’s lifeless form in the morgue to the phone calls David makes to the mother of his child because only she can understand the depth of his pain, and Laura’s crazed surveillance of the immigrant camp where the man who killed her daughter lives, a place where foreigners are subject to random attacks by young thugs and outraged citizens. Laura can find no empathy for this man in her heart, consumed with the need for retaliation: “I had to hurt someone because of all the things that were hurting me.”
With a surgeon’s precision, Doughty dissects her protagonist’s interior spaces, from Laura’s impossible, heady passion for David at the beginning to their joy over their newborn daughter, the attrition of time and stress on a marriage, the acrimonious breakup and the enmity of David’s new mate. But nothing survives Betty’s death (“The loss of what we love belongs to us forever”) save Laura’s obsession for revenge, caring for Rees the only thing that marginally tethers Laura to life. Lost in the wilderness of her grief and yearning to hide beneath the covers of Betty’s comforter, Laura stalks the foreigner, her last link to Betty, senseless with agony, no longer shocked by the vicious unsigned notes that appear on her doorstep.
Darkly powerful, Doughty’s writing plunges into the human experience of a mother grappling with an impossible loss and a father facing the consequences of his ill-advised affair. There are scenes of stunning relevancy, a gathering after the funeral where Laura chafes at the expected courtesies of her role as a bereaved parent, her atavistic response to the stranger driving the vehicle that snuffs out her child’s life, the subtly altered relationship between a couple after their loss and the gradual accommodation of reality post-mortem. It’s a harrowing story, one that haunts long after the last page is turned.