This gripping story opens on the morning of the day that Nina Landry and her family plan to catch a plane from Heathrow to Florida for a Christmas vacation. Nina's car has broken down; her neighbour and fellow-teacher Rick is trying to fix it. Nina is happy. Although she's had a tough year because Rory, her partner and father of her children, has left her after uprooting her and their children from London to a remote eastern part of the country and then failing at his new business venture, she's embarking on a new relationship with Christian, an old friend. Nina is looking forward to the holiday, where she envisages she and Christian, with her children – 15-year-old Charlie (short for Charlotte) and 10-year-old Jackson – will become a "family unit".
After her car is mended, Nina drives home and begins to pack for the holiday, faintly irritated that Charlie has not returned from her morning paper round. A knock on the door heralds a collection of neighbours and friends who have come round for a surprise fortieth birthday party for Nina, organised by the absent Charlie. Rory phones, furious that Nina is going away for Christmas, saying he is coming to see the children before they leave. The party shows no sign of ending; Christian phones to say he is stuck on the M25 in a traffic jam; and still Charlie has not come home. The tension mounts as Nina gradually realises that Charlie's absence isn't normal.
Events are described in real time, as Nina's increasingly frantic efforts to persuade the local police and Charlie's friends (when she can find out who they are) that her daughter must have met with danger are met with resistance and disbelief. Although she has Jackson to look after, Nina takes matters into her own hands by searching through Charlie's possessions and interrogating the people Charlie spent time with, in an attempt to find out how her daughter lived her life and to trace the missing girl's steps between the previous night and the time of her disappearance.
LOSING YOU is an unbearably tense book. The reader identifies with Nina's frustration at the slowness and lack of flexibility of the police investigation, and cheers her on as she attempts to find out what Charlie has been doing from monosyllabic teenagers, whose parents are less than keen to help, for various reasons. Nina shows great initiative and tenacity in her search for her daughter – one of the many excellent aspects of this book is that nothing ever slips into the incredible. This really could happen to you. The air of menace becomes intolerable as the hours slip by and Nina realises that the chances of her finding her daughter alive are lessening. She won't let go, and becomes more and more like a wild animal as she follows every hint and confronts every possible suspect in her increasingly primitive need to rescue Charlie.
The claustrophobic setting, on the remote (and, from what I can tell, fictional) Sandling Island in the east of England, adds to the atmosphere: the mud, the tide, and the abandoned winter beach huts and boats are the background for a community where everyone lives a few minutes drive from everyone else, and people know too much about each other's lives. The story is told without any special effects: apart from the ubiquitous mobile phone (which does not actually feature that much). The book relies on good story-telling rather than on any gadgetry and wizardry.
I defy anyone to put down LOSING YOU after the first hundred pages. The intensity of Nina's search as she jettisons her emotional interest in all the other aspects of her life, is utterly compelling. The real-time setting works brilliantly as Nina races to discover her daughter's movements, fully aware that the odds are increasingly against her.
The authors are practiced at conveying domestic minutiae and day-to-day family concerns, gradually infusing them with the abnormal. There are a few weak aspects, for example the putative house-sitter Renata, but these are minor issues in an overwhelmingly exciting plot, which delivers on its solution. Ten out of ten.