It happened again! I started listening to this and then at some point realized it is really quite good, like meaningfully good. Furthermore, I’m wasn’t “getting it” all. So I stopped, maybe 1/3 through, and download the Kindle version. I started over.
This book really ought to be read in some kind of text format for several reasons. But because the paragraphs are long, it’s also a good idea to listen. I think listening and reading is probably best. Warning – every sentence is important in some way – the best of minimalist styling.
The story: (no spoilers) On a New Year’s Eve, sometime in the late 1970s, Rebecca Shaw age 13 went missing from a very small and quiet English village where she and her parents stayed summers and holidays. Although everyone turned out to look for the girl, and they looked everywhere, she wasn’t found by nightfall of this cold day. The police and media showed up and helicopters flew over the reservoirs and quarry while divers went down and journalists took pictures. There was no sign of Becky. And then a day or so later it started snowing. The rather remote village is a lonely kind of place where most of the people know each other, but tend to mind their own business – even within families.
by Jon McDonald (England)
2017 / 304 pages
read by Matt Bates – 8h 48m
rating: 9 / psychological suspense
(Booker Prize Long List)
In February the police conducted a dramatization of a possible scenario for possible witnesses and reporters. The police conducted more interviews.
By March she still hadn’t been found. Did she just vanish? The girl’s mother was visited yet again.
Meanwhile the seasons change and life goes on with herons sloping and dances planned and the hawthorn coming out. That, essentially, is what this book is about – that and the grief process when there is no closure – when a grievous loss is unexplained.
Then she was sighted, by someone, somewhere, and a van was found. A tipster showed up with a tale about the van. But this is a quiet village and most folks don’t share all they know- just some quiet speculative gossip maybe, so the stress takes its own toll.
The suspense is sharp, at least at first, but that’s part of the theme and I was hooked almost from the first sentence because McDonald is superb at his craft. The landscape and seasonal changes are full and complete and mixed into paragraphs with many different characters telling this or that. This creates a focus on the search for Becky but also of time passing – memories dimming, life going on, There are repeated passages like “Rebecca, Becky, Bex,” and “The clocks went forward and the evenings opened out.” Time is passing, suspense is building very slowly but deliberately.
There are some backstories in the beginning which add to the suspense in their own way, bu there’s no foreshadowing. And the suspense gets muted as the citizens of the town adjust to this new reality, the new normal, which never is really quite solid because Becky is still missing and nobody really knows how to talk about it. Where could she have gone/ They’re all stuck in some phase of grief.
It was a cold night to have been out on the hill. She’s likely just hiding, people said. She’ll be down in a clough. Turned her ankle. She’ll be aiming to give her parents a fright. There was a lot of this. People just wanted to open their mouths and talk, and they didn’t much mind what came out. By first light the mist had cleared. (Chapter 1)
Although much of the narrative relates to the seasons and the landscape it’s just woven right into the middle of paragraphs because “life goes on” for everything – for the community as a whole including the environment. This is mostly about a whole community and its response to tragedy and grief – the kind with no closure – and continuing to live their lives.
“As the dusk deepened over the badger sett at the far end of the woods, a rag-eared boar called out a sow … The woods were thick with the stink of wild garlic and the leaves gleamed darkly along the paths. Jackson’s boys went out to the fields and checked the sheep.”
About 40 characters are named in the first chapter and the narrative follows several of them though the years. There’s James, who had known Becky better than most – he and his friends were in their very early teens when she disappeared. And there is Sue and her husband Austin Cooper. It’s interesting how many of the characters are caretakers in some way – or they are in relationships which seem to be less than stable for some reason, or they’re single widowed, divorced. The unsolved mystery of Becky’s disappearance creates stress on almost everyone.
But many minor characters populate the story, James’ friends Sophie, Deepak and Lynsey, the vicar Jane Hughes, Irene and her son Andrew, Martin Fowler the butcher and his wife Ruth, the Jackson boys, the Hunter family, Cathy and Brian Fletcher, etc. At first all are presented from quite a distance and we are informed about them through an unnamed omniscient narrator. Over time, the distance shortens and we get to know many of the characters and follow their stories.
People sometimes have dreams about Becky or the idea of her missing will creep into their minds, but they keep it quiet, waiting maybe, and mostly just tend to their own business. And this brings us to Chapter 2 – (maybe page 40 or 45, I’m listening) so you know there are no spoilers above – and Chapter 2 is New Year’s of the next year and so it goes.
McGregor’s creates enormous tension with a hugely atmospheric setting and his minimalist but completely realistic styling. The setting is a HUGE part of what makes this novel so excellent. The natural landscape is described in simple straightforward language – and the landscape changes as the months go by and the reader is given something similar to town gossip, for instance, “A lone man was seen staring into reservoir 8,” or “It was known that Reverend Keep was talking to Rebecca’s parents.” There are critters in the natural environment which are not neglected, the beavers and bats and swallow and sheep all have their annual cyclical time frames, their patterns.
But then life goes on and in just the same way as the seasons change, people get on with the changes in their own lives – kids grow up and there are funerals and weddings and divorces and births. Adults drift apart and move, the kids grow up and go to college. Interest in Becky Shore diminishes, but never really gets extinguished – it’s like the entire community is lacking closure. Sometimes the investigators show up again, because the case remains open, or there’s a memorial or someone says something but mostly life just goes on. There’s this distinct feeling of time passing both quickly and slowly – like with the changes in a landscape or in a marriage and kids growing up. Patterns – lots of patterns – time and patterns.
The tension which is so palpable in the beginning, when Becky first goes missing, is in large part replaced over time by tensions within the characters and their relationships and this is what builds on several fronts. The individual sentences about various different things which happen in that particular time frame are all included in a single paragraph which gives the reader little snips of information one at a time which adds to the tension.
There is a fair amount of repetition as the years, time is a huge theme, goes around in its cycles. Mention is made of “Rebecca, or Becky, or Bex.” The well-dressing ceremony comes and goes, along with everything else. in a year.
In this ongoing and bit-by-bit character development and plot lines there are clues as to what might have happened to Becky – who might have done something, or the reader thinks there may be. And there is occasional work on the reservoirs so whenever that comes up the reader really thinks perhaps Becky’s body will be found. -The underlying fears the characters must feel when their loved ones don’t show up on time is thick, even with no mention of it from the author. Psychological suspense.
McGregor is good and I’m feeling a sense that I might get his first book, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things.