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'Nicci French' is actually a husband and wife crime writing team who have published several popular thrillers, including 'Losing You'. I vaguely recalled reading something they had written before, but it hadn't really made an impression, (I couldn't even remember what it was called, although a quick search online reveals that it was 'The Memory Game',) so I was anticipating a fairly nondescript story with the obligatory twist or three. *Yawn* Could it possibly be better than I hoped? Yes - and no.
== The blurb ==
Nina Landry has had a tough year. Now she is eagerly anticipating her Christmas holiday with her new lover and two children. Unfortunately, Charlie, her teenage daughter, has disappeared. Vanished. Has she run away? Or has something terrible happened? Nina is absolutely convinced that Charlie would not have run away, but the police are equally convinced that this is a typically teenage act of rebellion. Intent on proving them wrong and discovering where her daughter is, Nina investigates and soon discovers that all it not as it seems. Did she really know her daughter? Can she uncover the truth?
== The set up ==
French quickly establishes a desolate landscape which helps to make the later action seem more dramatic and intense. The narrator feels like she is "on the edge of the world" and that even the wind is "melancholy". The setting is bleak and cold, a small island in December. Even Nina's car appears to be collapsing in the chill winter atmosphere and it is all deliciously dark.
I enjoy writing which helps you to visualise the surroundings, and French certainly does this. The setting and characters are described in detail, including the arrangement of their hair and their minor actions. Some readers might perhaps find that too much time is spent on introducing characters: each one is given a detailed physical description and a history. In fact, there are regular diversions into the past where the narrator explains her own history, including the departure of her husband after their move from London to the island. At the time, these may seem irrelevant, but they do not detract from the 'story' since there really isn't much of one initially.
The story opens with Nina watching a friend who is trying to fix her car while enduring ribbing from his wife. She returns home and continues organising the house ready for their holiday. She thinks about her neighbours. There is a rather odd party. Meanwhile, Nina begins to wonder where her daughter is with growing concern. It is a very slow build up and is full of mundane everyday details. This might sound dull, and I agree that it wasn't an enthralling opening, but this is how the writers hook you in. Everything is so mundane, so everyday, apart from the gloriously foreboding weather, that you share Nina's growing discomfort when her daughter fails to arrive home. The ordinary becomes transformed by a horrid absence of normality, and the reader makes this transition with the narrator.
There are no chapters, which encourages you to keep reading but is also frustrating as there is no natural stopping point. I think this is probably sensible given that the book has such a slow burning opening: it would be very easy to conclude after a couple of chapters that nothing was happening and put the book away in a corner somewhere. This would be a shame as, later, the tension does build up and it becomes clear that many characters have secrets to hide.
There are some nicely comic moments along the way to relieve the tension. For instance, Rick's wife interacts with him in a very believable but quite comic way as she gently goads him about his inability to fix Nina's car ("Well, you've fixed the rattle. If it can't go, it definitely can't rattle.") This is another strength of the storytelling: characters and their interaction are very convincing. Teenagers are sufficiently slouchy and huffy; policemen question methodically, ploughing the same furrows over and over. The situation as a whole is at once believable and horrifying: Nina knows her daughter would not run away; the police know that teenagers do frequently run away; the reader sees the impasse and, given the first person narrator, identifies with Nina whilst recognising the pragmatism of the police approach. The juxtaposition of logic and sentiment is what makes the storyline compelling.
As the story develops and the pace quickens the possibilities multiply. Charlie's father becomes a suspect and soon Nina can trust nobody. Unfortunately, as the pace picks up, the story becomes less believable. Nina develops super strength and is capable of impressive physical movements. A boyfriend has a cringe worthy conversation with Nina, who by now seems able to command anyone (except the police) to do whatever she wants. Nina's lover, who is supposed to be going on holiday with her and her children, spends the entire novel stuck on the motorway and is therefore conveniently unable to provide any assistance. In fact, he did appear to be a completely unnecessary character.
And speaking of unnecessary...after the main story ends there are two key problems with the novel. 1) It keeps going. 2) Nothing new happens or is revealed. Seriously. There is a lot of 'winding down' narrative which really seems quite purposeless and detracts from the overall experience. It could have been summed up in a sentence or two.
== The audio book ==
As I have less and less time to sit and read lately, I thought I would try the audio book version of this story. This worked very well as I was able to complete many dull but necessary household chores while giving most of my concentration to the recording. It is tricky to stop in the middle of a CD as there is no indication that the track is changing, and obviously it would be easiest to start again at the beginning of a new track. (I wish we still had tapes! So much simpler if all you want to do is listen straight through.) The narrator, Adjoa Andoh, used distinct voices for each character and varied her tone throughout to create an interesting and enjoyable listening experience. This is apparently a completely unabridged version (it does last 8.5 hours and is comprised of 8 CDs) so I do not feel I have missed out on any of the story.
== To conclude: ==
* Good characterisation
* Very atmospheric
* Explores the mother/daughter bond
* Red herrings used effectively
* Nice touches of humour
* Convincing dialogue
* No chapters (hard to find a stopping point)
* Very slow pace to start with
* Overly drawn out ending
* A bizarre party scene early on which, in retrospect, seems to be a clunky device rather than a realistic event in the narrative
* Nina seems to acquire super strength and super sleuthing abilities
* Uneven writing style (clichés like "two drowning swimmers clutching at each other", adjective overload sometimes when describing places, dull details like "the kettle boiled and I poured the water over the leaves")
Overall, I did enjoy listening to this story, although it was partly the thrill of being able to 'read' and be productive at the same time! I think that I appreciated this as a tale of mothers and daughters and how their relationship starts to break as the daughter grows older and more independent, rather than as a thriller. As a thriller, I think it is too concerned with the tiny details and not enough with motives.