Do I really see what’s in her mind, Each time i think I’m close to knowing She keeps on growing, Slipping through my fingers all the time. ABBA
Years ago, when Mamma Mia first came out at the cinema, I went to see it with my Mum. When it came to the wedding day and Meryl Streep helping her daughter get ready for the ceremony, I saw so much emotion flow through my Mum’s face. I didn’t want to make a fuss, because I knew that if I touched her or asked if she was ok it would make things worse. It threw me a little bit because I couldn’t remember my mum ever being sentimental about me. I’d always been someone, she thought, could took care of herself. On our drive home I asked her what about the scene made her emotional, and she said it wasn’t the scene it was the song ‘Slipping Through My Fingers’. It talks about a mother who never seems able to fully capture a moment with her daughter, because she moves just out of reach all the time. Away to school, on to grammar school, to new friends, boyfriends, university and into a fully grown woman. I’m not sure I fully understood what she felt, I don’t have children, but more recently I became a stepmum to two teenage girls. I can see now, with my eldest, how girls grow so quick and out of your influence. How friends become the people who understand them, how they’re constantly making plans to get away, to visit other places, to move on, to study in another city. It’s as if the woman they’re becoming wipes away the trace of that little girl you once did everything for. This book is about that point between mother and daughter; Rachel sees her daughter Mia slipping through her fingers.
The backdrop to this mother -daughter story is a heatwave and a scandal. The nightmare begins when Mia’s school friend Lily disappears one night when she’s supposed to be at a sleep over with her friends. Mia socialises in a group of five girls, and in parallel Rachel keeps a What’s App group of their mothers aimed at keeping in touch with their daughter’s plans and keeping them safe. Lily disappears in the midst of the heatwave and the author very cleverly uses it to ratchet up the tension. At home and at Mia’s school, where Rachel works as a teacher, the heat is relentless. Rachel notices the girls in class lifting their long curtains of hair, and twisting it into a top knot just to feel some air on the back of their neck. Everyone is somehow more aware of each other’s bodies: the smells, the damp as you stand up from a sitting position, or on your back as you stop driving and get out of the car. Rachel’s also aware of so much young flesh on show. The girls and their golden legs, without a trace of hair. They’re perfection and by comparison Rachel is aware of her own flesh as less taut, just a millimetre too saggy at the jawline.
At night it’s impossible to sleep. In between the oppressive heat and worry about Lilly, there are short chapters detailing an illicit relationship. It feels obsessive and dangerous. There are no names used. Could it be Lily or is someone else keeping a secret? Then police find that Lily took something with her. A camisole belonging to her mother. That means she chose to go and for a moment everyone breathes, until they realise that means she didn’t go alone and that person is possibly older and might still mean her harm. Rachel asks Lily’s parents if she can look over her bedroom, just in case there is something the police have overlooked. Something that might only have meaning to those who know the girls well. She finds, on Lily’s notice board, some song lyrics and straight away she knows, she knows who Lily is with. The shock reverberates through her. She should tell the police straight away, but she can’t, she needs to process it first. To think it through before the police do find out, because that could bring even worse trouble. Yet, if it’s ever found out that she knew and kept it to herself, she could be in trouble with the police or even lose her job.
Instead of speaking out, Rachel becomes scared and takes to following her daughter Mia, over to the playground where her friends hang out. Even though they’ve been interviewed by police, all four of Mia’s gang swear they don’t know where Lily is. At the playground they perfect dance moves, new ones that are provocative and possibly learned from watching music video. Then the boys join them and the girls change subtly with Mia kissing her boyfriend Aaron. Again referencing the body, Rachel notices Aaron’s physicality, his sheer size compared to Mia. His large hands on her. In light of Lily’s disappearance, Rachel wants to know him better and invites him for tea. He looms large at their table, almost a man. He starts to ask uncomfortable questions.; why shouldn’t Lily be left alone? He argues that she’s almost 16, what could possibly happen within a matter of weeks that would make her more ready for an adult relationship? Rachel is saved slightly by her husband Tim turning up at the door, he’s home early from working abroad. In bed later he warns Rachel that she needs to back off where Mia is concerned. Tim is concerned that Rachel’s scrutiny will destroy their relationship.
I enjoyed the author’s depiction of how Rachel copes with growing older, made especially difficult by her past and Mia’s growing beauty, Rachel has placed a photo outside the downstairs loo. It shows her at her peak of youth and beauty as the singer in a band. In skimpy clothes and torn tights I imagined her look like Courtney Love, the lead singer in Hole back in the 1990s. Rachel seems to be embarrassed when people recognise her, but it seems likely that people will see it, because of where it’s placed. It’s as if she wants to show she was once cool and beautiful. It’s an ego boost for her. There’s a disturbing scene later, when she takes Mia’s prom dress and tries it on. She’s pleased to be able to fit into it, but what seemed harmless turns into something else when Mia comes home. In another scene she has thoughts about Lily, and her first time sharing a living space with a man. Rachel imagines her worrying about how to do all the things that make her beautiful: the shaving, plucking and preening are no longer private and mysterious I wondered if these concerns were really for Lily or whether they were about her own beauty rituals. Would she ever be able to accept her ageing process and know she can be attractive at any age?
The mysterious man at the centre of Lily’s disappearance exerts a strange hold over the women involved with him. The author doesn’t ever give us his thoughts or feelings. We just get snippets of musical taste, but it’s clear he is either beguiling or emotionally/psychologically abusive. One disturbing scene shows him and his unnamed lover enter a freezing cold river in their underwear. He goes in first as if to give her the motivation and even though he says very little, it’s clear the female feels compelled to move in deeper and deeper until she feels the current trying to carry her away. I sensed that he wants her to feel powerless without him. I wasn’t surprised to learn who the anonymous lovers are in these sections, but the ending did surprise me. As everything comes to a head towards the Prom, Rachel gets a chance to see her daughter anew; Mia arrives as a woman, not the girl who ordered the lilac ballgown, which she sees sullied by her mother. Rachel learns so much about herself and how wrong she has been about any things. As she rushes to support her daughter it’s as if that stifling heat has been affecting her ability to think straight. As the rain starts to come down outside, leaving it’s own unique smell rising from the boiling pavements, Rachel’s eyes clear to see that within the beautiful woman in front of her, there is still a glimmer of the little girl inside again.