C.L. Taylor is a masterful storyteller. Her previous books The Lie and The Accident have shot up the bestseller lists and The Missing is just as gripping from the word go. Taylor opens with a mystery – Claire’s son Billy is missing, and we don’t know why. The horror of a missing child is brilliantly evoked and we see the Wilkinson family struggling to cope with the pressure of the unknown – they have no leads, they don’t know what happened to Billy and they don’t know whether they can assume the worst. They dangle in limbo, somewhere between hope and despair.
The book begins with a press conference, six months after 15-year-old Billy has vanished. Claire and her husband Mark are speaking to the journalists – Taylor adds in the heartbreaking detail of an almost-empty room, compared to the huge amount of media when Billy first disappeared. Their remaining son Jake is not present, his mother having found his rum-drunk in his bedroom first thing in the morning. But there’s a disturbance – Jake stumbles in halfway through the conference, and it is from this point that the story really kicks off. Just how well do the Wilkinson family know each other? Are Jake and his live-in girlfriend Kira really happy? And what about the strange periods of amnesia which Claire is experiencing?
Taylor threads together the story with a sharp-edged needle, dropping red herrings all over the place so that it is impossible to predict the ending (which, when it comes, is certainly not what you’d expect). The bouts of amnesia which Claire begins to suffer from are disconcerting; she wakes up in a B&B in Bristol, with no memory of how she got there, and as the book progresses the amnesia episodes become darker – Claire comes to on the floor of a public bathroom, next to a bloodied knife. She is undoubtedly an unreliable narrator, yet there is something completely authentic about her too – her love for her sons, her parental worries over Jake and Kira, her sadness at the way she and her husband Mark have grown apart. She doesn’t want to be one of those couples that falls apart following a loss, but she doesn’t know how to prevent it from happening either. The scenes when Claire visits her next door neighbour and close friend Liz add a huge amount of sympathy to her character, as we see her crying over angry newspaper headlines while Liz proffers wine, chocolate and Twilight on DVD.
Throughout the book, backdated text messages are interspersed between two anonymous users – texts which start out as a friendship and progress to something more. A darker undertone begins to emerge within them, but we don’t know who is behind the mobile phones, although we’re led to believe that one of the users might be Billy. There are heart-stopping visits from the police, there is the hint of an affair, there is the definite feeling that someone is lying. As the novel reaches its climax, the feeling that someone within the family unit is to blame for Billy’s disappearance grows stronger and stronger – but we don’t know who, and we don’t trust any of the characters further than we could throw them.
Taylor has created in The Missing a tense, tightly-woven psychological thriller that builds and builds, leaving us totally unsure of which characters we can rely on. I felt real chills down my spine when Claire and her husband confronted Jake with his laptop and what it contained, and when Mark’s first reaction to his wife’s confrontation was a smile. After I’d finished, I went back and marvelled at the way Taylor has made every sentence count – nothing is insignificant, and the ending, when it comes, is dazzling. Taylor’s novel is climbing up the bestseller lists as we speak, and it deserves every accolade it gets.