Eight year-old Daisy Mason is missing. The initial assumption is that she has vanished during the course of a summer barbecue given by her parents in their home near the Oxford canal. However, it soon becomes apparent that she and a friend exchanged fancy dress costumes and it is the other child people have reported as attending the party. No one has seen Daisy since she left school that afternoon. DI Adam Fawley is detailed to head up the enquiry. The reader is soon aware that some type of tragedy has befallen Fawley’s own child, Jake, and all eyes are on him to see how he will cope with this, his first child-centred case since his son’s death.
As the Press and social media watch on with more self-indulgent interest than concern, Fawley and his team begin to uncover a web of lies at the heart of the Mason family. None of them is quite what they seem, not even ten year old Leo, Daisy’s solitary and much bullied brother. Neither is the happy family unit that they would like the world to perceive anything more than surface dressing. Layer after layer of deceit and mistrust is revealed as old family histories come to light and current tensions explode in the faces of all concerned. It isn’t so much a question of who could possibly be responsible for Daisy’s disappearance as who can safely be ruled out. The one person who apparently has been aware of much of this unease is Daisy herself. In a series of flashbacks we see her not only unpicking elements of her family’s own back story far more effectively than the police manage, but then reflecting the anger against her parents which her discoveries provoke in an anti-fairystory she writes for her teacher. As someone who has spent four decades in primary education and three of those actively researching the stories that primary children write, I don’t know what surprised me more, the story that this eight year old is supposed to have written or the response of the teacher who read it. It is hard to say more without giving too much away, but that was the point at which even my well known ability to believe six impossible things before breakfast gave way and I read on simply to see what Cara Hunter would pull out of the hat next but not believing a word.
I have to say that I find it very hard to critique this novel. In many ways it reminds me of a child’s story itself. There are so many twists and turns that in the end I viewed it simply as an exercise in cramming as many social and family deviances into a book as possible: an adult equivalent of how many dragons, witches and haunted castles can I squeeze into one tale. It also has a final dénouement that would give the ubiquitous and then I woke up and it was all a dream a run for its money any day of the week. These features alone would have been annoying enough, but the author compounds the irritant by doing the same thing with narrative devices. Sometimes it is a first person narrative, sometimes third. We are in the present, we are in flashback, although not a simple flashback, but one that goes further into the past each time. Extensive stretches of dialogue vie for attention with transcripts of interviews and facsimiles of twitter streams and Facebook pages. If I had been the editor I would have sent it back and said for goodness sake, just trust the story; let it tell itself. My initial thoughts were that I would begin by saying that I believed Cara Hunter had it in her to write a really good novel at some point because every now and again there is a quality in the writing that suggests someone who has a real feel for language. It seemed to me that this was a young writer who had yet to find a measure of control; who needed to learn that very often less is more. I was going to jump up and down again on the soapbox marked ‘insufficient editorial input’ and say how this hampered writers just setting out. Then, checking on the Fantastic Fiction site to see if this was indeed a first novel, I read this:
Cara Hunter is the pen name of an established British novelist who lives and works in Oxford. She also studied for a degree and PhD in English literature at Oxford University.
Now I am floored. Apparently we have another J K Rowling on our hands. Except Rowling would never get in the way of a good story in this manner.
I know that the book has attracted great interest and large sums have been paid for it and for the next two in the series. I fully expect the book world in general to tell me that I am wrong and that this is a masterpiece, but as far as I am concerned this is a novice piece of writing and if it really is the work of an established novelist then I simply don’t know what is going on here.
With thanks to Penguin and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of the book. (Although whether they will thank me for the review is another matter!)