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This novel was definitely a ‘reading experience’ as I felt confused, then blind-sided with a revelation I wasn’t expecting. If the author wanted to express what a dissociative state felt like in the structure of the novel then he definitely succeeded with this reader. As I read, there were times where I felt like I was in a dream state, others where I felt a piece of time had gone missing and when I reached the end I felt disoriented and needed to go back and piece the story together bit by bit. It was such a clever structure, because it enhanced my doubt of the narrator and every person she met. I didn’t know whether the events she related were happening to her, to someone else, or in reality not happening at all. I found myself left feeling unsettled and ‘jangly’ after each spell of reading.
Alex is a successful documentary film maker, in a great position as her last feature made money and won awards. The question now is what the next subject will be. In this early stage we learn that Alex has a traumatic past, culminating in a hospital stay where she was diagnosed as experiencing dissociative or fugue states. She hasn’t put all of her past back together, but knows there was a squat, drugs and exploitative sexual encounters. There is an element of survivor’s guilt since her success as she feels she’s making money from people who are struggling, where she was several years ago. Her manager suggests going to a town called Blackwood Bay on the coast somewhere up North. The concept is for Alex to stay up there and film local life for a while, but also to get locals to film and anonymously upload their take on Blackwood Bay to a website. Alex likes the idea but is unnerved by the location. Her manager mentions in passing an underlying story of girls going missing, but assures her she isn’t there to film that. Alex knows that if she goes to Blackwood Bay she will have no choice but to get involved in that story, because she wasn’t always from London. Blackwood Bay is her hometown; she is Sadie, one of the missing girls, and what happened there was so terrifying she has dissociated from it in order to survive.
Watson creates a dark and disturbing atmosphere in the bay, where we trust no one and look for clues everywhere. The residents are equally unsure of her, uncomfortable about what she’s there to film and why. This is a typical seaside town, that in spring and summer bustles with life, but in the winter months is practically shut down leaving locals bored, time rich but money poor. The pub is still a centre of activity, but here, and other places in the town, unnerve Alex or take her back to traumatic episodes in her past. Her cottage is rented from Monica, who seems like a mother hen figure to the young girls of the bay and Alex knows better than anyone they need protection. I enjoyed the way the story was built, both on the present film making, but on those moments where Alex remembers something. She remembers knowing all the constellations in the sky, but who taught them to her? She recognises a couple of tattoos on young girls that are exactly the same as her own, but why did she get it? A smokey upstairs room at the pub, is a scene for a quick chat, but induces physical symptoms in Alex like she’s been winded. Her search for answers is compulsive and I noticed there are many times where she doesn’t even consider her present safety, wandering the town and surrounding countryside at all hours of the night and trusting people she maybe shouldn’t. I found myself on tenterhooks all the time and I kept questioning her feeling of safety in the holiday cottage, where both landlord and any number of other locals might have a key.
The truth, when it finally emerges is very dark and disturbing. Growing up in Blackwood Bay is a dangerous game for girls and reading these pages is might be tough for people who’ve had personal experience of exploitation or abuse. There were things I had worked out, but others that came as a shock. I suspected some people very strongly, who turned out to be innocent, and trusted others that were very twisted, disturbing characters. The knowledge that the girls in Blackwood Bay have been unsafe for generations is shocking, but unfortunately all too real. This is a tainted community where people have closed their eyes to the truth for far too long. Alex tries to keep her identity as Sadie secret for as long as possible. She becomes focused on finding out the fate of a friend called Daisy. The story is that she jumped from the cliff into the bay, witnessed by a distressed Monica and filmed by a lonely man who lives in Bluff Cottage. This interplay between what is seen and what is seen on camera is interesting and builds more layers to conceal or reveal. When the final shock twist happened I was genuinely surprised. This version of the truth hadn’t entered my head. This is a book I will be thinking about long after I put it down. The central theme, that the camera can lie, is very effective. More devastating and seen through several characters stories, is that we can even lie to those we profess to love. In fact we can even lie to ourselves.