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.
A simple game of hide-and-seek turns into a nightmare when Mel is unable to find her daughter in all her usual hiding places. So begins this stunning psychological thriller about a woman whose world is turned upside down as she waits for news of her child and is forced to consider that she may not know the man she married.
I seem to be reading a lot of books recently about mothers and children, which is rather unusual for me, but I thoroughly enjoyed an earlier novel by Katy Gardner called Losing Gemma some while back, so thought I’d give this one a go.
And I’m very glad I did. Gardner’s writing is sharp and energetic, and I was never less than gripped by the story. The voice of our heroine, Mel, is very strong indeed and even though she goes through a great deal of trauma she never comes over as a victim, an approach I was grateful for. In fact, I was rooting for her all the way.
Within the narrative, there are three timelines which each have an important effect on both the events portrayed here and the outcome. There’s an old murder the police have never solved which lurks in the background throughout; then there’s the story of how Mel met her husband Si and eventually moved in with him into a property badly in need of development; and finally there’s the present crisis of Mel’s daughter, Poppy, going missing and the mystery of who has taken her. There’s a lot going on and the connections between characters and what’s happening are both realistic and complex. However, the tightness and thrust of the writing ensures a clear story arc at all times.
The emphasis is very much a psychological one, in that we are presented with a small group of people, all of whom have their own agendas and are hiding their own particular secrets. The main focus is on Mel and Si, and what he may or may not have done, both in the past and in the present, an issue compounded in that he too is missing alongside his stepdaughter. In addition, the way the marriage gradually falls apart in the weeks and days before the kidnapping is both realistic and devastating. In many ways, the environment the couple live in also echoes this slow unravelling; at first the house seems to be a chance to make a fresh start together although, ominously, Mel remains doubtful even at the beginning but then, as time goes on and money worries mount, the disintegrating setting itself mirrors the malaise in their relationship.
She is also to all intents and purposes alone in a strange world, and her isolation drives home her vulnerability almost to breaking point:
While Poppy remained unattached to their children, I had no entrée to the groups of mums who waited so companionably in the playground. As I hovered on the edge they clustered in cliques, ignoring me. It was reminiscent of being nine once more and back at my own primary school, where, on the instructions of a plump girl called Josephine, I was summarily blanked. For the other girls, friendship seemed to occur naturally. Yet for me it was constantly elusive.
Linked to this is the fact that we only ever see Si through Mel’s viewpoint which adds an interesting layer of dramatic tension and indeed isolation as we never know when or if he’s telling the truth and, if he is, about which part of his life. If you see what I mean. At the same time Mel’s relationship with Poppy and how that changes and becomes more difficult with the move and the birth of Mel’s second child is also tightly and expertly portrayed. Here’s a writer who knows her characters and can convey them easily without the need to labour (sorry!) the point.
Beyond Mel’s point of view, we also see key snippets through the eyes of Dave, the investigating police officer both in the old murder and the present kidnapping. Initially it is he who provides the obvious link between those two occurrences but there are other more shadowy connections that also exist and which the characters only gradually become aware of. This of course only adds to the tension.
I also enjoyed the fact that, as I’ve previously experienced with Gardner’s novels, the reader is very cleverly led down one path and then suddenly everything turns and one’s assumptions are shattered once more. It certainly makes it a gripping read and here it happens twice, which is satisfying indeed. And I thought it very fitting that, after all, it’s Mel who solves the mystery first and is the catalyst for the dramatic denouement. Good on you, gal.
The only minor issue I had with this book is that I didn’t think Dave should have been given the final scenes, interesting though his take was on the real facts. I think we should have ended with Mel, as the character who’d been through most within the story and the one with the most to lose. She surely deserved that. Still, reading Hidden has reminded me how much I enjoy this author, and I hope I won’t have to wait too long for her next offering.
Hidden, Reader’s Digest Condensed Edition, ISBN 978 0 276 44221 6