It wouldn’t be accurate to say I read this book so much as I devoured it. Or maybe it devoured me — swallowed me whole, chewed me up and spit me out. It is, as you may have heard (several people recommended it to me) a very good book, but reading it was, for me, kind of an overwhelming experience.
I knew I had heard that the novel dealt with the disappearance of a small child, which meant that it was going to be a pretty emotional read. What I didn’t know was that it dealt with the disappearance of a six-year-old girl named Emma, which, since I have an Emma of my own, made it fairly traumatic reading right from the start. I was immediately drawn into the story and couldn’t put it down even while I was shaken by what I was reading and often found myself near tears.
While this is fiction, it calls up echoes of all the true stories we’ve ever heard about missing children, but it doesn’t play on those emotions in a cheap or easy way. Rather, it explores them through an interesting and honest perspective. The first-person narrator is Abby, who is engaged to Emma’s father Jake; Abby was on the beach with Emma when she went missing. Her grief and sense of loss are compounded by her overwhelming guilt — she looked away from Emma for only a moment, to take a photograph — and her awareness of her precarious role in Emma’s life. As the search for Emma consumes both Abby and Jake’s lives, their relationship naturally shifts, strains and cracks under pressure.
The novel is well-written and Abby is a completely believable narrator, even in her less appealing moments. Reflections on the nature of memory and how we recreate the stories of our past to fit our present needs weave throughout the narrative as Abby tries to figure out how much she really “remembers” about her last day with Emma, and whether any of this can be useful to her in finding Emma. The emotional pace of the novel rarely lets up, even though it covers an entire year and there are long stretches of months where nothing really happens in terms of the search for Emma.
The ending of the novel is the very definition of bittersweet — an ending where the best and worst possible outcomes mix together to leave the reader with hope coloured by an awareness that after such a shattering event, nothing can ever go on as before. I read this book in less than a day and literally couldn’t put it down, but it should come with a warning label, for moms at least. Don’t start this book unless you want to get emotionally involved.