I thoroughly enjoyed Jane Casey’s debut novel, The Missing. The story is told from the perspective of Sarah, a young English teacher whose brother Charlie disappeared from the family garden almost 20 years ago. Sarah was in the garden at the time, but half-asleep, so can’t remember exactly what happened. Part of the novel tells the story of the impact of this event on Sarah and her parents. Gradually, we come to see the full effects of the devastation wrought on all three of them – as individuals, as a family, and as the rest of the community in their Surrey commuter town perceives them.
The main narrative takes place in the present day, beginning when a girl from Sarah’s class of 12-year-olds disappears. Sarah and a policewoman talk to the girl’s distraught parents to try to determine who last saw her and what she was doing. Sarah, a quiet, introverted woman, is deeply affected by this disappearance, not only because it concerns one of her students but because it causes repressed memories and emotions concerning Charlie to come to the surface. She goes out for her usual run the next morning and discovers a body in the woods. It is the missing girl.
In the immediate aftermath, the book focuses on the school’s response: what the teachers and headmistress do about the situation, and how the media insinuate themselves and compromise the police investigation. During this phase, Sarah comes over as somewhat irritating and wimpy, being rather feeble about dealing with an over-keen male colleague and a pushy reporter, for example. As the novel continues, the school aspects fade out and we focus much more on Sarah’s relationship with her mother, the police who are investigating the crime, and her own attempts to find out for herself what happened, in the process beginning to recognise and face her feelings about her brother’s loss and its shockwave. I really enjoyed this perspective, in which Sarah sees herself as helping the police, but can’t actually know what leads they are following or what they are concluding – even about her own involvement. Gradually, through her experiences and discoveries, as well as her shifting relationships with each of the very well-portrayed detectives Vickers and Banks, she gains strength and resilience.
This is a novel of many levels – first and foremost it’s a good story, with a believable and exciting double plot. I desperately wanted to know how it was all going to turn out, and in particular whether we would ever know what happened to Charlie. The author does not disappoint in her realistic, naturalistic account. The book is also an excellent character study of the effects of one traumatic act over a period of years, mainly on Sarah and her mother, but also on the family’s dynamics. I was impressed with how the author avoided some of the clichés to bring true emotional resonance. The story is topical, in the sense of being about some of the darker activities that go on in the world today, with the author getting the balance just right between not pulling her punches and not dwelling unnecessarily on the sordid or the gruesome for their own sake. There is also a dash of romance, which I liked. Unusually for a crime novel, major and minor characters seem real and individual, without any of the shorthand or stock elements that are so common to the genre. Although the climactic scene is somewhat melodramatic compared with the discipline of the rest of the novel, the outcome of the two mysteries is very well thought-through. I highly recommend this novel as a great combination of insight, suspense, sadness, excitement and well-constructed plotting.
I like the apt quotation from Webster (The Duchess of Malfi) at the start of the book:
Those houses, that are haunted, are most still
Till the devil be up.
Other reviews of The Missing: