Taking the missing child narrative and turning it into something different and new is quite a challenge, but I think this author is successful in exploring what happens beyond the initial drama, where most novels end. Arden Maynor disappeared when she was six years old. Thought to have left the house while sleepwalking, she is washed away by a flash flood and isn’t found till three days later, hanging onto the grate of a storm drain. In those moments, absolutely everyone in Widow Hills is focused on her and everyone is affected. From her and her mother, to the man who finds her, the journalists and photographers, rescue teams, police officers and those who treat her terrible shoulder injury at the hospital. There’s a flurry of publicity for all those concerned. Arden’s mother gets a book deal and a fund is set up to support Arden into the future. Then the next crisis happens and the Maynors are forgotten.
Twenty years on and Arden is renamed Olivia Meyer. She has used the remains of her fund to buy a house on the edge of a new town near the woods. She also has a job in administration at the local hospital and lives a fairly quiet life. She has a routine of work, dinner, a small glass of wine while watching TV and then bed. On Fridays she goes for a drink in a local bar with her friend from work, Bennett, and a new nurse called Elyse. She also has a friend in Rick, an older guy who lives next door, and they keep an eye on each other. This routine is unsettled when she receives a phone call telling her that her mother died seven months before and they need an address to send her belongings to. When the box arrives and she opens it, a cascade of memories come out with the objects. There isn’t much, but Olivia is most touched by the small bracelet with a silver ballet slipper charm attached. It’s something good she remembers from her childhood. She doesn’t remember much of the three days she was missing, apart from the dark, cold and wet. Afterwards, she feels her mother frittered money away, mainly into drug abuse and they drifted apart. That very night Olivia starts to sleepwalk again.
I enjoyed the author’s depiction of someone who is post-trauma. I understood Olivia’s need for quiet, security and routine. I did start to have questions as I read further. It seemed that Olivia’s narrative of her childhood and the trauma was very rote and something she’s defensive about. When she visits the sleep clinic about her sleepwalking, she can’t elaborate on it more than repeating her mother’s description. It’s almost as if she can’t recall the trauma from her own point of view. Even her memories of being missing seem strangely one note. She was missing for three days, but can only remember a small proportion of it. She couldn’t have been in the same place for three days, because the team searched there, so why can’t she remember where she was? As the stress builds, the big wall Olivia has around her memories and feelings starts to crumble and it’s interesting to see her start to question herself. Especially as the bodies start to appear.
I loved that the author showed us the flip side of Olivia’s experience; what it’s like to witness a trauma. Olivia meets the son of the man who found her and while she’s not sure if she can trust him she does listen. Nathan saw his Dad do something heroic, be plunged into a whirlwind of publicity, then left with nothing. There was no fund for the rescuer, no fund for his children, and there is a bitterness that Olivia might have had it easier with her funded education. Similarly, she meets one of the journalists who was there and helped with her mother’s book. She has adopted a lifestyle very like Olivia’s – quiet, and tucked away where she can’t be found. Olivia starts to see how a trauma she thought was hers, exclusively, has affected others like ripples on a pond. All the people she meets ask questions, till she can see there’s something about her experience that’s missing, and even goes as far as revisiting Widow Hills to remember. I had my suspicions, but the final revelation did surprise me. The author taught me that when reading thrillers I can’t trust anything I’m told, from the opening chapter, right up to the final page.