I was sitting up to 1:00am. I had to get to the end to understand what happened.
On the surface this may have a lot to put you off. All I can say is, “Don’t be put off by the surface.” If I tell you that it involves the death or disappearance of six children, the grief of one mother, the guilt and rejection of another, a war veteran with PTSD, and the rigours of the Falkland Islands’ landscape and water, you may want to put it down saying that it sounds too grim. However, despite that, it isn’t grim at all. In fact, it is one of the most optimistic books I have read for a long time. Ultimately friendship, care, and love triumph over the pain and losses.
The first part of the book is dominated by the grieving mother who has lost her two boys in a tragic accident that could have been avoided. We sit with her in her pain as she plots either the murder of the woman who could have prevented it and/or her own suicide. Sadly the Islands have a history of dead or missing children. At least two other boys have disappeared in recent history. We are jolted into the present as another boy disappears, and then another one.
As the time pressure mounts towards the date of the intended murder and/or suicide (the third anniversary of the tragic accident) we are diverted into looking for the lost children, and because of circumstantial evidence, the blame of the Islanders begins to mount and focus on the grieving mother. Thus far we have a relatively straightforward “Who Dunnit?” with at least one prime candidate.
However, the book has a far greater richness. We are shown different truths about the past and the present. The war hero is allowed to tell his story and we catch sight of his pain and understand his care for the grieving mother. And then the rejected friend tells of her reality. Each character adds more pieces to the complex jig-saw. But at this point, two historical disappearances have not been explained, and one child is still missing.
The first four-fifths of the book build the internal world of the characters and puts them firmly in the landscape they inhabit. It also slowly, but powerfully builds the tension that is crying out for resolution. The final fifth of the book is a tour de force of careful unravelling of detail. The reader wants to know what happened to the final child, if he is still alive, and who (if anybody) took him. In the space of relatively few pages three separate explanations are given, one after the other. Each one is convincing at the time and leaves the reader satisfied until the ground we stand on is suddenly pulled away. I was left feeling sympathy for the police officers and something of their shock. I didn’t know who to leave the handcuffs on. And then finally, we stumble across the truth.
As I read the final few pages it was if I had been diving in the kelp off the Islands. There had been beauty and the threat of entanglement, but at last I had escaped and reached the surface. As I floated on the calm water and reflected on the dive, the author cunningly dropped a very faint hint that sent a frisson through me. I thought I caught site of what might have happened to the historically missing boys. It was ambiguous, but I read carefully and it was definitely there. I felt I had been deliberately shown something dangerous – like a nearby orca capturing a seal. I metaphorically got back into my boat and sailed back to the harbour. And although there is redemption in the book and beauty in the Islands, I wouldn’t ever want to go there, and would certainly never take any children.
But I will read another Sharon Bolton.