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"You could go to the moon...discover the gene for autism...or a new seahorse species that no-one in the world has seen before; but for God's sake, if you're a girl you'd better make sure you're sexy."
Mandy Baker disappeared at the age of ten. She is kept alive in the memory of her friend Tina, now a marine biologist working for a U.S university. When Tina returns to her Fenland childhood village for a family wedding, a chance remark by her brother causes her to re-examine old memories and form a new perspective from which the thirty year old mystery begins to unravel.
Jill Dawson's rhythmic writing seems at times to float and drift like the seahorses Tina studies, only to pull the reader up sharply with a comment or passage of intense emotion. The beautifully described Fens backdrop adds to the dreamy atmosphere. Tina narrates the story, she's a sympathetic character although her shaky mental health may at first cause readers to question her reliability. She has a ten year old daughter which lays the groundwork for some vivid re-remembering, many parents will relate to the way that looking after a child can spark off long buried memories. Most of the story is set in Tina's childhood, in which her father, who left his wife and teenage children to set up home with a younger woman, plays a pivotal role.
The disappearance of Mandy may be a mystery, but although it gives the story a hook, this isn't a whodunnit, it's more an exploration of the effects on Mandy's family, friends and the wider community. There are moments of intense poignancy such as when Tina begins to write guiltily in the diary she bought for Mandy's birthday. Tina looks a little like Mandy and plays her for a police reconstruction, dressed in the same clothes as those her friend wore, riding the same route on her bicycle. It's a scenario everyone has seen on television news, but the feelings of the person playing the part aren't often considered. Back in the present day Tina's nieces watch tv news reports about two missing girls - a case which resembles the real murders of Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells in Soham, maybe a reflection on how missing girls are on the news so often, it's almost societal wallpaper.
Dawson passes socio-political comment without letting the storyline flag, an example being when Tina looks around at the toys in her nieces' bedroom; "fluffy-heart shaped cushions...princess jewellery box...two little dolls all doe eyes and pouting mouths...scorchin hot style...Baby Girls With a Passion for Fashion." Tina looks at a newspaper, perhaps an easy target; everyone must have seen examples of press double standards such as cartoon baddy paedophiles vilified on one page while on the next a countdown until a well known young girl becomes 'legal' is underway. Pre and early teen sexual experiences are recounted with uncomfortable realism which will no doubt will ring true for many people, a confusing combination of hormones and inexperience, along with contradictory expectations and pressure that can make young girls extremely vulnerable to unwanted attention.
I was strongly reminded of another, non-fiction book, (which I read and reviewed around a year ago; bit.ly/vjuIc1), 'Where There is Evil' by Sandra Brown. I felt sure the author must have based the events of the novel on this true story. And indeed, in the acknowledgements Dawson draws the readers attention to three 'fascinating and pertinent' books, the first of which is Brown's. I was also reminded of an acquaintance who is in a very similar situation to Tina; her childhood best friend was murdered a long time ago and she feels she must stay in touch with the girl's family as she is an important link for them to their daughter, even though she might never have remained friends with her, no-one knows what might have been. These stories are around us every day although we may have no idea of what people we might think we know, have been through. At times 'Watch Me Disappear' feels like a lamentation for all the children who have been abused, abducted, raped and murdered.
While undoubtedly grim in parts, the friendship between the girls adds a lighter note and the seventies are brought to life with conviction. The beauty and perceived fragility of the seahorse is used as elegant metaphor. Meditations on the nature of time, the transience of life and ghosts of the past and the future give a supernatural edge to the storytelling while Tina's love for family and nature give it a spiritual underpinning.
Watch Me Disappear works on various levels; it's an efficient crime mystery, a seventies nostalgia trip, an exploration of the tricks of time and memory, as well as a polemic against the sexual objectification of girls. Dawson tackles paedophilia and the sexuality of young girls in an unflinching, uncomfortable yet immensely readable book, which doesn't sensationalise it's subjects, quite an achievement. It's an emotionally resonant work that educates, sobers and angers, as it entertains.
Paperback: 272 pages, Publisher: Sceptre; New Ed edition 11 Jan 2007, Current retail price new on Amazon.co.uk: £7.19, Kindle edition: £4.99.
Jill Dawson is a poet and author whose work has previously been shortlisted for both the Whitbread and Orange prize. This was the first of her novels that I have read and I will certainly be reading more by her.