There is always something daunting about a book that is written concerning the disappearance of a child – it is one of those subjects that just screams “disturbing” at you, long before you even open the cover of the book. Therefore it was with some trepidation that I started reading Jane Shemilt’s debut novel Daughter, which centres on the vanishing of a fifteen year old girl, and the family’s subsequent journey of searching for the truth about the disappearance, and the truth about who their daughter actually is.
The novel is told from the perspective of Jenny, a busy middle aged GP, mother to three teenage children and an (even busier) neurosurgeon husband. The description of Jenny’s days sounds like any working mother’s frantic and overextended life: the demands of her at the surgery are all- encompassing, while her home life with a virtually absent husband and three variously aloof and scornful teenagers is also no picnic. Despite Jenny’s busy working life she seems to believe that she knows her daughter Naomi well, and that there are no secrets between them. When one night Naomi doesn’t return home at her curfew, Jenny feels instantly anxious and – unlike her husband – has an inkling that something is seriously wrong. Jenny’s hunch is confirmed when Naomi does not show up any time later in the night, but instead, from that point on completely disappears.
First-time author Shemilt – who like the main character of her novel is a mother and a GP in the English city of Bristol and married to a surgeon – embarks on a deeply poignant and thorough exploration of the aftermath of Naomi’s disappearance. The narrative weaves back and forth between past and present and yet manages to chronologically depict the events on parallel tracks – the truth unfurls both in Jenny’s recollection of the past, and Jenny’s life a year after her daughter’s disappearance.
As a mother herself – and an obviously very skilful writer – Shemilt leaves no stone unturned to examine the relationship between Jenny and her children Naomi, Ed and Theo, in a step by step slow process of realisation. Serious issues in regards to guilt – especially parental guilt – are worked through in Jenny’s narrative, to the point where the reader feels the tension between denial and acknowledgement constantly playing tug-of-war in Jenny’s mind.
That some characters are less realised than others, or frustratingly under-explored or explained is thankfully overshadowed by the writer’s powerful actualisation of dramatic tension, which carries the narrative through until the very last page, where the resolution presents as much of a question as an answer – in the end it is up to the reader to complete the missing pieces of this mystery and to decide how disturbing the truth really is.
So far 2015 has already seen an impressive range of new crime and mystery writers and their debut novels; amongst these Jane Shemilt stands out with this intricate exposition of psychological complexities of motherhood, grief and regret – this is definitely one writer to watch in the future.