Since our Squad Pod January book club choice is Philippa East’s I’ll Never Tell I thought this week I’d take you back to her debut novel.
This is an addictive and intelligent debut novel from author and therapist Philippa East. It’s a tale of a family coping with the aftermath of an abduction. Abigail White has been missing for seven years, after becoming separated from her mum, Anne, on a trip to London. Now aged 15, Abigail walks into a police station along with a younger girl. The novel flits between Anne’s viewpoint and that of Abigail’s cousin Jess. Jess and Abigail were born only four months apart and were more like twins than cousins. They had a special connection, and even after seven years apart Jess still feels she knows Abigail better than anyone. Her friend Lena warns Jess that Abigail has gone through a significant trauma and will have changed in ways they can’t see. Soon after her arrival at the police station, detectives discover that Abigail was taken from outside the tube station by a stranger. It seems that he was in the right place at the right time, just as Abigail became separated from her Mum and twin brothers. Anne had been trying to manage Abigail, the twins, a buggy and the train doors. Detective McCarthy has experience with abduction cases and uses his expertise to ask some probing questions: how did Abigail manage to wander off the platform and up to the street above, is this just a crime of opportunity or is there any chance at all that the family know this man?
Anne and her sister Lillian are close, but they are different. Lillian is the older sister and the ‘fixer’ who is organised, sensible and it seems to Anne as if she never makes mistakes. Anne’s life has been more complicated. Abigail’s birth father became an addict, causing difficulties with finances and the safety of their new family. With Lillian’s help, Anne left and despite trying to maintain contact with Abigail he has largely been absent. Anne then met Robert who has always considered Abigail his own daughter, creating a stable family unit for the first time. It is hard to imagine that Abigail could simply slot back into her family as if she never left. Anne is beset by doubts and concerns. Will Abigail expect her bedroom to be as if she never left? Can they let Jess back into her life at once or will she need time to adjust? Have the years of captivity and sexual abuse left her daughter so damaged she won’t recover? There is also the hint of a secret surrounding the moments before Abigail’s disappearance that day. Anne wonders what Abigail remembers and whether they should talk about that day. Lillian advises her to leave it alone. The tension between them and Anne’s concerns kept me hooked. To me, Abigail feels like a ticking time bomb and I found myself waiting for her to explode.
I felt that the author understood the psychology of trauma and she depicted beautifully the way a crime like this affects everyone around the victim. The trauma ripples outwards into the family like a drop of water on the surface of a pond. I really liked the insidious way that secrets are shown to damage trust and erode relationships. The depiction of Abigail is very cleverly written because it delves into the complexity of the relationship between the captor and the child. For example, Anne is startled by the findings of an educational psychologist who concludes that Abigail must have been home schooled. It seems strange that a man who has emotionally and sexually abused a child for seven years, would be concerned about their education. It made me think about the relationship between the child and the abductor. We can accept the negative aspects, but it is harder to accept that Abigail might have positive feelings toward her captor. It is as if, in order to survive mentally, she has had accepted captivity as her reality; when Cassingham abducts a younger girl it prompts her to act, but it still takes her a long time to find her voice again and be angry about her experience. The concern I had was whether Abigail would ever accept her new reality at home with her family.
I enjoyed the character of Jess and her struggle to understand the cousin who was once as close as her shadow. Can she trust that the same Abigail even exists any more? Can they jump back into easy familiarity or will Jess have to get to know this new Abigail who is the sum of her experiences? I truly empathised with her internal struggle between supporting her cousin and keeping the friends she has made since Abigail disappeared. Abigail might find it hard to fit when she has missed out on seven years of music and other popular culture. She is awkward, not knowing what to wear, how to do her hair or even how to speak. There is a gulf between her and other 15 year olds that might be too wide to bridge. It might be embarrassing for Jess, but for Abigail the frustration could be too much to cope with. She can’t find anyone who shares or truly understands her experience.
This was a great read, with believable characters facing a parent’s worst fear; their child has gone missing. I enjoyed the different perspective, focussing not on the abduction and police operation but on the issues faced when the child returns. It explores the family’s happiness and relief, only to find a relative stranger in their midst. Alongside this central narrative, East also explores the complexity of modern family relationships, and poses the question of whether we truly know the people we love and live alongside. Within the relationship of Jess and Abigail, we see the pains of growing up and fitting in, particularly the realisations that our elders are fallible and the World might not be as safe as we imagine.
I would like to thank NetGalley for this ARC in exchange for an honest review.