She’s Not There by Joy Fielding

Review published on March 12, 2018.

To celebrate their tenth wedding anniversary, Caroline and Hunter Shipley and their two young daughters, five-year-old Michelle and two-year-old Samantha, travel from their home in San Diego to Rosarita, Mexico. Caroline had assumed that they would be enjoying a quiet, private celebration so she is shocked to be greeted on their arrival at the hotel by three other couples her husband has invited to help them mark the occasion. For their final night Hunter has planned a special anniversary surprise but, when the hotel baby-sitting service lets them down, Caroline is reluctant to leave the children alone in the room. Against her better judgement she goes along with her husband’s suggestion that, as the restaurant is so close by, they should take it in turns to check on the girls every half hour. At the end of what turns out to be a less than successful evening the couple return to their room only to discover that Samantha’s cot is empty. Although there are extensive investigations, all efforts to discover what has happened to their daughter are unsuccessful; in televised appeals Caroline, although falling apart inside, comes across as cold and unemotional whereas her husband presents as the much more charismatic and emotionally affected parent. Fifteen years on, divorced from her husband, who has remarried and has another two children, and coping with Michelle, who has her own emotional problems, Caroline has never given up hope that Samantha would be found but has always been the focus of negative publicity, suspected of having had something to do with her daughter’s disappearance. These suspicions have caused her to lose her job as a teacher on several occasions. On the fifteenth anniversary of the disappearance, there is renewed and extensive press coverage, including an artist’s impression of how Samantha might look now. When Caroline receives a call from Lili, a young girl in Calgary who believes that she might be Samantha, she is filled with hope, although all other members of the family remain convinced that this is just one more scam – there have been many over the years.

Alternating between the past and present, this immediately engaging story explores not only what has happened during the intervening years but also what effects Caroline’s belief that Lili really is Samantha has on the rest of her family and friends. Joy Fielding managed the time switches in an impressive way, enabling the reader to build up a vivid picture of the damage done to relationships following an unresolved tragedy. She convincingly captured the combination of guilt and recrimination which combined to drive Caroline and Hunter apart and which continued to affect all the relationships within this broken family. Her exploration of the relationship between Caroline and her daughter Michelle exposes the damage done to a remaining sibling in such tragic circumstances, made worse in this case because, even prior to Samantha’s disappearance, it becomes clear that she was seen as the “golden” child whilst Michelle was labelled the “difficult” one. Another interesting theme which is explored is whether men and women deal differently with such a devastating loss and, if they do, what are the effects of this on their relationship.

As the story progresses, a pattern emerges of similar patterns in the family dynamics between Caroline, her brother and her mother, Mary, thus laying the foundations for an exploration of the long-term effects of toxic family interactions. There are various clues to indicate that the solution to who was behind the disappearance probably lies closer to home than anyone wants to contemplate but, although I had guessed before the end, there was enough uncertainty to ensure that the psychological tension was maintained. I thought that each of the characters was credible and I found myself having fluctuating feelings of sympathy, frustration and irritation towards them as the story progressed. The only character who felt unremittingly toxic was Caroline’s awful mother, Mary, and she appeared to have absolutely no redeeming characteristics!

This is a powerful and affecting story with a wide range of themes, making it an ideal choice for reading groups to discuss, debate and argue about! This is the first of this author’s books that I have read and, on the evidence of her ability to tell an engaging story, I would certainly be prepared to read her earlier novels.

Linda Hepworth 4/4

She’s Not There by Joy Fielding
Zaffre 9781785762758 pbk Dec 2017

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