A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Kate Kendall’s life is comfortably average: a nice house, three children (though strangely the blurb on my proof copy claims only two), a loving husband with a good job … Until one day, on her way back from her first holiday alone in years, she is met at the airport by the police. It seems that her respectable, honest husband has been involved in money-laundering for a prominent businessman. He has also disappeared. Gradually Kate is forced to confront a new and frightening reality. She must adjust not only to a precarious, hand-to-mouth existence with her children, but also to the idea that what came before was nothing but a lie. How could Felix have abandoned them so brutally? And why?
I’m a great fan of Clare Morrall and it was a pleasure to have this book sent to me by the publishers for review. She’s an author who somehow and with no justification whatsoever seems very much under the radar, in spite of her Booker Prize shortlisting in 2003 – she was robbed … Really, it’s a complete mystery to me why nobody seems to have heard of her.
I was also much amused to read the book’s strapline: Felix Kendall: Accountant. Husband. Father. Liar. To which my own accountant husband’s response, when I stared at him, was: ah well, two out of four ain’t bad. Strangely, he declined to elaborate on which two he meant …
Anyway, this book brings us comfortably into Morrall territory: an apparently happy family where things go terribly wrong and the people left behind must pick up the pieces somehow. This, I know, makes it all sound very grim, but actually it’s not. The writing has a huge and life-giving energy of its own, and you’re right in there with the characters and the story from page one. There’s something about the way in which Morrall writes that’s utterly unique and can’t be compared to anyone else; she’s certainly a writer who knows and makes the most of her literary voice.
She’s also a writer who doesn’t mess around with too much focus on issues, but lets the story speak for itself – a less common gift amongst literary writers than you’d think. Morrall is moreover a highly skilled technician when it comes to the multiple viewpoint novel. We see the story from the point of view of Felix himself, then Kate, and the younger two of her children, Millie and Rory. I would actually also have enjoyed seeing things from the elder son Lawrence’s point of view, but perhaps Morrall judged that four voices was probably enough. It does seem that Lawrence disappears (sorry!) from the story a little too soon, as well as from that blurb. Which is a shame as he’s a fascinating character and has several issues with his missing father that are eventually resolved off-stage. Sadly.
However, this doesn’t spoil the beauty and strength of this book. Felix’s deep confusion over what’s happened to him and the choices he’s made, and the reason he runs rather than staying to face the accusations are realistically and subtly portrayed. I enjoyed the details of the new life he tries to carve out for himself whilst in hiding, and the people he meets. I also understood and admired him for the decision he makes mid-novel (says she, desperately trying to avoid spoilers here …). The only slight problem I had was I didn’t quite believe the power of the teenage incident of violence that drives him to make a run for it in the present, and I would in addition have liked to see more of the effects of the loss of his parents when young.
The children are also shown as unique and fascinating characters in their own right. Again, their very different reactions to the loss of their father seemed accurate, though as you know I’m no child expert. The hothouse atmosphere of Millie’s school and the various reactions of her friends to what’s happened is gripping indeed, although I was less certain of the drama connected to Rory, particularly at the end of the story. Even though he does act as a catalyst for Kate and Felix at this point.
However, it’s Kate that my heart most connected to. I really felt for her as her world shockingly disintegrated – those initial scenes with the policemen in the airport and the way her bank cards won’t work due to the legal freezing of her joint accounts are heartbreaking and I simply couldn’t look away. I also thought the way she tries to come to terms with her husband’s betrayal and make another kind of home for her family, as well as taking on the role of financial provider for the first time, is very well done.
In fact, I felt most engaged when immersed in the energy of these bleak scenes of survival in all the characters; actually, in some ways, this does feel like the bleakest book I’ve read of Morrall’s. But this author doesn’t want to leave you there. The story begins to turn from the negative to the more positive about halfway through, and the final scenes leave you with a strong feeling of hope and potential, which I enjoyed very much. However, I did wonder whether Kate would have been quite so near to resolution as she appeared to be at this stage and I personally would have preferred more uncertainty to remain in the air. That’s a personal gripe however, and others will feel differently, I’m sure. In any case, the end paragraph or two are simply superb.
So, if you’ve not tried a Clare Morrall novel before, then I can thoroughly recommend any of them, including this one, which is a classy addition to her listing. More please.
The Man Who Disappeared, Sceptre 2010, ISBN: 978 0 340 99427 6
[Anne is happily building up her Clare Morrall collection. To discover more about her own disappearance potential – yikes! – please click here]