I reached the end of this novel and realised I’d been holding my breath. My whole body was tense. This is a dark, thrilling, journey to the centre of that place we all imagine to be the safest: our home.
Twelve years ago, six year old Jenny Kristal left home to play with a friend two doors away. She never arrived. Now, she’s back. Parents Jake and Laurie are pleased to have her back. They’re not asking many questions about what happened to her, just letting her settle. Yet, when her brother Ben comes home there’s a very different reaction. Ben seems to freeze when he sees her. He doesn’t try to communicate at all. As time goes on, he starts to ask questions, awkward questions. He also brings up memories of the two of them, but are they real or is he trying to catch her out? Does he suspect she’s not his sister? Is he paranoid or is he right?
I love novels and films that subvert the missing child genre. This had shades of the BBC series The Missing where a family are unsure if their daughter is genuinely returned. The mother is sure it’s not her daughter, whereas the father can’t see it, causing huge conflict within the family. Also on the BBC, was the series Thirteen with the incomparable Jodie Comer as a girl returned to her family after years of captivity. She faces the inevitable questions and suspicions of why didn’t see escape before; why now? In this situation how do you match up the child you’ve lost with the young woman who returns? There’s bound to be dissonance between the version that returns and the girl you remember. The conflict of emotions would be bewildering; you’re meant to be happy and yet there’s a sense of loss for the daughter you expected her to grow into. How hard would it be to return and face those conflicting emotions?
It’s so hard to write about this novel without ruining it with spoilers, but I’ll do my best not to reveal too much. In between the short, sharp, chapters full of dialogue, the author gives us glimpses of dreadful details of what this girl has endured. Whether she is Jenny or not, she has been through a terrible ordeal at the hands of people she calls Mother and Father. Sometimes it’s just a snippet of information, such as a memory brought about when looking at photographs of herself with Laurie. Into her memory comes an unwanted image of a different kind of photograph, taken by abusive parents. Other memories are longer, such as being in the black laundry cupboard for long periods. To be dragged there was terrible, but even worse was to walk yourself there knowing you were powerless. Surely now she’s safe? Between the suspicion of Ben and the girl two doors down,where Jenny was going the morning she disappeared, she feels anything but secure. Prompted by messages from someone called ‘Lorem’ she’s reminded that a little girl disappeared from this house. As I was reading I kept thinking, if this isn’t Jenny then there’s still an undiscovered little girl somewhere, Is everybody in this family as normal or harmless as they seem? Were here memories of torment at this house, with these seemingly normal people. We follow as ‘Jenny’ starts to dig a little deeper, to find out whether this seemingly perfect, but tragic family have secrets of their own.
I was so busy following Ben’s back story: the nightmares and catatonic state he went into after his sister disappeared. Shut away in a school for traumatised children, run by the Catholic Church, he continues to have a terrifying, recurring nightmare. Is this linked to Jenny’s disappearance? Do we take it literally or is it symbolic? Then, I started to wonder about the parents too. Jake and Laurie don’t seem to ever have the same doubts as their son. They seem happy to accept she’s home, never questioning or even offering to talk to her about her ordeal. They don’t seem curious at all. Are they doing this out of consideration for her feelings or are they too scared to hear what she’s gone through? The final revelations are unexpected and shocking. They come just as the reader thinks an ending has been reached, so they have even more impact. It’s tense, gripping and doesn’t shy away from portraying the darker aspects of family life. For some people, home is anywhere but safe.