I don’t know exactly how to categorise this book, but I certainly enjoyed it. At its heart is the mystery of a missing woman. Sheila, widowed mum of two grown-up daughters, is reliable and steady. She’s always there for her children, especially Stella, a young mum of two herself who still lives nearby. One day Sheila is no longer where everyone expects her to be, her house is empty, her bed unmade. There are no signs of violence or abduction; is it possible that she has just walked away from everyone and everything?
From this one particular and peculiar event Rachel Heath spins out into examining the lives of some of the residents of the small town. In this instance the place is Saffron Walden. It is both unique and universal; the story is rooted in the landscape and architecture of the place but the experiences are not so specific. For Stella it is everything she knows and wants, its familiarity is what makes it home. For her sister Marie that familiarity is suffocating and something she had to escape from as soon as she was able to. For Jonathan and Tacita it should have been an idyllic escape to the country, but neither one is truly happy and their simmering unspoken resentment cannot be contained much longer. Theresa is also looking for an escape, her move from London looks very much like running away. Stella’s husband Zeki seems happy enough, but his responsibilities lie heavier on him than his easy manner suggest.
There are so many secrets being kept something has to give. Sheila’s disappearance is the catalyst for our cast of lonely, dissatisfied people to try speaking the truth to each other. Unsurprisingly for a small community they all connect in various ways, and in her absence Sheila brings them together. What I love about this book is that Stella is such an anomaly. She is not dissatisfied or lonely; she has no secrets, but of them all she has the most to gain from this. It is somewhat cruel that she has to be wrenched from her bubble of ignorance, but necessary. She is becoming increasingly unconnected to reality, her vivid daydreams threaten to overwhelm her. As she learns more about her mother’s life she has the chance to become more self-aware and more understanding.
Another thing I love about this book is the language, I found myself dwelling over phrases such as ‘the tired but dazzling nature of her daydreams’ and pondering a town that ‘cannot help but refract light’. I was also quite taken with Theresa’s idea that by focusing a spotlight of attention on an individual they might be encouraged to dance, whirl and be brave. The pace at which we are offered the various secrets is perfect, there is always something to pique the curiosity and encourage us to keep reading. My interest was sustained right to the end, and I found the resolution satisfying without being too neat and tidy.
I think I can categorise it now; it’s one of those books that gives you a good story and leaves you with lots of thinking points. Families, communication, what we say and leave unsaid, how well you can ever know someone, and modern society are all deftly handled in this super book.