Book Reviews

‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.’ Alan Bennett

“Many a book is like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of one’s own self.” ― Franz Kafka

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Missing Persons - Nicci Gerrard

'You can't tell with people - you think you know them and then you discover you don't. We're all mysteries, to each other and to ourselves...'

Isabel Hopkins takes her son Johnny off to start his course at University. She is very sad to leave him, and feels lost when she arrives home having left him there. He is a sensitive, kind and loving son. They keep in touch as he settles in. Then she stops hearing from him, she can't get hold of him on the telephone, and he isn't replying to letters. Johnny's father Felix discovers that the University doesn't know where Johnny is either, and that he hasn't been attending his lectures or submitting his work. Frantic, his parents visit the University, talk to his tutor, his flatmates, but no one can tell them where he is. Then they contact Will and Baxter, friends from school, anyone who may have some idea where Johnny has gone.

The cover copy, or synopsis, for this novel clearly tells us that this is not Johnny's story, although I have heard the author describe the novel as being haunted by Johnny. Instead, it is the story of the impact of his disappearance on Isabel and Felix, his parents, of his sisters, Tamsin, and in particular Mia, and his friends. Everyone who cares about him, and who care about his family. It is a frightening, frustrating situation for them all. The author portrays in depth the struggle to cope with Johnny's disappearance. How can someone they love, who is such a fundamental part of their lives and of the family, just vanish, and no longer be in contact with them. There has been no incident, no upset they can think of that has triggered this; they seemed a loving family, as Mia explains: 'It was like a bad dream, the kind of thing that happens to other people, not to a family like us: middle class, comfortably off, apparently happy.'

The novel offers a detailed portrait of how Johnny's disappearance affects those he was close to, primarily Isabel, Felix and Mia in different ways. Mia is his younger sister and to her, Johnny was something of an idol and a hero, she was close to him and feels his absence deeply. As the story progresses, we learn how her life is weighed down and shaped by her loss, and by her experience of seeing how her parents changed as people due to their anguish. 

For Isabel, and for Felix, live is utterly changed, and their marriage is tested to the absolute limits, as they each react and attempt to cope in their own separate ways. Isabel loses weight, can't eat, can't sleep or think straight. She holds on to a blind optimism and denial, buying Christmas presents and keeping Johnny's room ready as if he will walk back in very soon. It's intensely sad reading how she changes and withers as the days pass by, she is desperate, suffering, agonising about the fact that she feels her son must have felt that he couldn't turn to her. She blames herself, not recognising that perhaps Johnny chose to go away, not because of something his parents did or didn't do, but because he needed something different himself. She has the support of close female friends Jenny and Leah doing what they can to help. No matter how severe the strain that Isabel feels under, Felix believes:

'that she was stronger than him, because she could bend and therefore would not break. She was like those sea grasses that would lie flat against the earth in a storm but gradually straighten when the wind died down. She was crushed and broken, but she endured and she would never give up. She had absorbed grief and fear into her body and made it part of her flesh and blood, but he had held it at arms length...'

Felix's way of coping and wanting to feel useful initially is to plunge himself into researching every aspect of Johnny's life in a vain attempt to discover anything that might suggest why he has gone. His study at home, formerly for his academic work, becomes a place dedicated to this research, and he goes beyond Johnny and starts to collate information on other missing people. He becomes 'a lonely detective, embroiled in his investigation. There was masses of information but not a single clue.' Through Felix the author offers us a glimpse of the practical ways and means of trying to find a missing person, but to me the novel is always ultimately about the human story, the emotional turmoil and agony.

I found this a very emotional and insightful book, not a quick read, and due to the nature of the story, very bleak at times, with so much despair, self-destruction, sadness and guilt felt and experienced by these characters. I had to read and digest a little at a time, and then come back to the book. I felt compelled to finish reading and discover the ultimate outcome to the events. I have enjoyed novels written by this author as part of the Nicci French collaboration with Sean French, and this individual work is an interesting contrast to those novels, with a slower pace, more contemplative, examining human emotions in depth. 

Published by Penguin


Below is a video of the author talking about his novel.


  1. great review, haven't read any Nicci Gerrard books, having disliked her columns, but am inspired to read this one. Thank you.

    1. Thanks for your comment, I have never read her columns so can't comment on those, but I have read some Nicci French books and enjoyed them.


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