This novel, about the disappearance of a pretty, middle class teenage girl, raises some difficult questions for working mums. Rachel found it engrossing and troubling in equal measure. Here’s her latest Still You Book Club review…
As a mum, this is the type of book that terrifies me. A teenage girl has been abducted, and a mother is on the brink of obsession trying to find her. It’s basically every mum’s very worst nightmare – and probably a subject that I would’ve avoided had this thriller not been on the reading list that we are following (as is the case with several other of the titles – that’s why reading lists are great). Boy, am I glad that it was on the list. It’s been a long time since I read a book that has gripped me so much that I stayed up late devouring page after page, reading the whole thing in about 4 or 5 sittings.
Let me fill you in a bit more about the basic plot: Jenny is a successful, attractive woman with 3 kids. A GP happily married to a surgeon, they are living the middle class dream. They have a nice house, with a cleaner who keeps it tidy. They are busy, but happy. She juggles work and kids and keeps things ticking over under the impression that everything is fine. But it’s not. One day her pretty and hard working, well-behaved 15-year-old daughter Naomi doesn’t come home. And that’s when their perfect life implodes.
This happens right at the beginning so you are straight in there with her, up to your neck in the all-encompassing terror that she feels; each second that passes sinking her deeper and deeper into a living hell. Twenty days after her daughter’s disappearance, a misjudged return to work results in her breaking down:
“…I shut the door behind them, stood against it for a moment, then slid down and knelt awkwardly on the floor… Then my face twisted and deep sounds came up from my chest, like some animal might make if it was in pain.”
The novel is essentially a mystery as you try and figure out what happened to Naomi, travelling down many different avenues looking for clues. Jenny finds out some things about her children along the way – and her husband too. They weren’t the perfect family she thought they were after all. But whose fault was that?
It raises some probing questions about modern motherhood: does having a career mean you do so at the expense of your family? Will you inevitably miss certain things if you spend a lot of time working? Is it still perceived as OK for the father to have a busy working life but not for the mother? Will this ever change? Do you ever really know your children? To what degree are your children their own person, or is their upbringing the main reason they turn out as they do?
A year after the disappearance, Jenny’s troubled son has an outburst that will send chills down the spine of any working mum:
“Art still the most important thing in your life, Mum? …When mum went up to paint, we knew not to disturb her, isn’t that right, Mum? …It was the same when you went to work. You never answered your mobile… Never there when we got home. Used to drive us bonkers… No decent food, of course. Christ! Can’t you even remember when you weren’t around? Whenever I was ill you left a box of pills by my bed and buggered off to work…”
Needless, to say, Jenny remembers things differently.
Whilst reading this thought provoking novel, I had several conversations with my husband about our work / life balance. As a mum of two children and with conversation often turning to having more, I wondered: would I be sacrificing closeness with my kids if I pursue a career for myself? I’d give it up all this second if I thought it would make my kids safer. But would it?
The author, Jane Shemilt, is a mum of 5 (yes, 5!) and a GP herself (as well as a successful novelist). I am keen to know if the novel in any way reflected her own concerns. Is the novel intended to be a depiction of every working mum’s worst fears? That years of being away from your children pursuing your own career ultimately will come back to haunt you?
There is another element in the book that terrifies me, the abduction aside. And that is being a mum to teenagers. I actually did a one-night disappearing act at the same age, 15, but I was returned home safely by the police the next day to my weeping parents and brother. Only now I’m a mum do I realise the utter hell my parents must have endured. I shudder at the thought of my now 2-year-old daughter partaking in all those things that I did myself as a young tearaway: drinking, smoking, trying drugs, having sex. In the book there is a strong sense of denial – and also of the burgeoning sexuality of teenagers. How do you deal with that, when you’ve spent the past 15 years in the presence of an innocent, only for them to turn, practically overnight, into a rebellious, autonomous sexual being?
Jenny is trapped by her own outdated perceptions of her children, as I expect so many parents are. She still thinks they are children, and even though she’s noticed the infinitesimal clues to their turning into adults, as she looks back she realises that, because she was too busy, she chose to ignore them.
Gradually her family is torn apart by the disappearance as several truths become revealed about each member. Unable to work, Jenny leaves her job and her family home and spends her time painting. She finally has time. Agonising amounts of time. Ironically, she now knows her family better than she did when she was so busy. Even though their family unit is shattered, at least there is truth.
The denouement is full of twists and turns and just when you think it’s solved, done and dusted, another surprise is delivered. I stayed up way too late on two occasions trying to finish it – desperate to know the outcome. This novel is a powerful page-turner and one that will stop any mother in her tracks to consider her own life choices. Don’t let the disturbing subject matter put you off: be brave and read it. You’ll be happy that you did.