Lisa Jewell has slowly become one of those writers whose books I buy without even reading the synopsis or any reviews. They are always intriguing, well paced and full of interesting characters who may not be who they seem. This book was no exception and I read it over a weekend – TBR be damned – just for sheer enjoyment. I felt so lucky to get a proof that I read it immediately! Crime writer Sophie is moving into a tiny cottage in the country, into the grounds of exclusive private school Maypole House. It has been a hasty decision to move with Shaun to his new place of work, because they haven’t been together very long. They knew they had something special, but since Shaun had already accepted the job and Sophie could write anywhere, they jumped in with both feet. Their cottage is situated on the edge of the woods. Exactly one year ago teenage couple Tallulah and Zach went missing from a mansion situated in the woods. They had gone to the pub for dinner, but were invited to a party at the house, by a girl called Scarlett Jacques who had been a student at Maypole, but now studied art at Tallulah’s college. They left at 3am to get a taxi, but never arrived home. Zach’s mum, Meg, thinks they’ve run away together to escape life. However, Tallulah’s Mum knows that’s not the truth, she knows something bad has happened, because they left their baby son Noah behind and she knows they would never do that.
Just a week or so before Sophie arrived, Kim had organised a vigil for Tallulah and Zach, to keep them in the public consciousness and to remember her daughter. Sophie had seen a picture in the paper, when she was browsing. She can’t seem to find her rhythm to write yet and this year old mystery seems to keep drifting into her mind. She didn’t expect to become so involved, but when a sign saying ‘Dig Here’ turns up on her garden fence with an arrow pointing downwards she finds a trowel and starts digging, bracing herself for what she might find. She is relieved to find a small jewellery box, and inside is a modest diamond ring. She notes down the jeweller and pays the shop a visit on the high street. Luckily, it’s a small local jeweller and he keeps track of every purchase in old fashioned ledgers. The buyer was Zach. So was Tallulah the intended recipient? Did she say no? Sophie knows she must take the information to someone and realises that Kim works in the pub. Within days the case is re-opened and once again the the spotlight is on Scarlett Jacques family home – Dark Place.
The character I connected with most was Tallulah. The structure of the novel is split into before the disappearance and then a year later when Sophie starts to look into the case. In the before sections, I could sense Tallulah feeling overwhelmed. She’s adjusted to becoming a mum so young and her love for Noah can be felt through the pages. There are times when she just wants to be her and Noah, getting home from college and picking him up for a cuddle she feels complete and calm. It’s everything else that unsettles her and there are times when her entire life feels mapped out for her. A life she doesn’t want. She’s in a perfect frame of mind to be enticed by an unusual new friendship with Scarlett from the bus. Scarlett is fascinating, older, rich and with a bohemian lifestyle. She has a charm or allure about her that’s hard to quantify and she clearly enjoys having an adoring entourage. So, what does she want with Tallulah? I’ve been where Tallulah is, feeling trapped by circumstances you can’t change, or even by your own mistakes. It leaves you open to taking drastic action and I wondered if that had happened.
Tallulah’s mother, Kim, is a strong woman who desperately wants to keep her daughter’s disappearance in the public eye. She has weathered the storm of her daughter’s pregnancy and her up and down relationship. The two are incredibly close and I enjoyed those moments when mother and daughter are sharing a moment. Kim knows her daughter so well that she has guessed parts of what happened in the lead up to the disappearance, which is more than I managed. I was hopelessly wrong, looking in the wrong place completely for answers. The author throws in red herrings, suspicious clues and people. I found teaching assistant Liam particularly creepy. The mystery is unravelled slowly as the before storyline hinges on one dreadful night and it’s aftermath. The after sequences are based on how quickly Kim and Sophie can find those involved using social media and follow the clues. The tension was really ramped up here and I was sucked into reading it so quickly, watching the pages reduce and wondering when the answers would come. Then, just when I thought I’d worked it out, the author went in another direction entirely. When I finished and put it down, my other half said ‘oh hello, you’re back in the room’ because I was utterly absorbed and when I wasn’t reading it, I was thinking about it. It was a dark tale of what can happen when people have no moral compass or conscience, and was riveting to the last page.