With The Lost Girls, Wendy James has produced a cleverly plotted, eloquently written page-turner that shores up her status as Australia’s queen of the domestic thriller.
I wouldn’t normally associate the word ‘domestic’ with anything thrilling. But James has a special talent for depicting everyday suburban lives and adding unexpected but entirely plausible drama. The suspense is driven not only by the characters’ predicaments, but by the fear that something like this could happen to us or someone we love.
When the story opens in 2010, Jane is married to her childhood sweetheart, Rob Tait, and their daughter, Jess, is in her first year at TAFE. Jane is in the process of closing down the antiques warehouse she took over from her grandfather. Her father has dementia and is living in a hospice, her mother is ‘coping poorly’, and her brother Mick, suspended from the police force with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, has moved back in with their mother following his divorce.
Jane knows the challenges she faces are ‘just standard mid-life experiences, not actual crises.’ But this doesn’t prevent her from wondering,
Why do I feel as if I’ve been left stranded, breathless and gasping like a fish on the shore, the tide receding inexorably behind me?
Perhaps in search of an answer to this question, she agrees to be interviewed by Erin Fury, who introduces herself as a radio producer doing a documentary on murders and their aftermath.
Jane is not the only family member who agrees to Erin’s interviews. Mick, Barbara and even Rob take the hot seat, each in turn shedding new light on the case as they reflect on the circumstances of Angie’s death. Erin turns out to have something more than a professional interest in the story, an ‘almost unbearable wondering’ that propels her search for the truth.
As more secrets come to light, members of both families of the lost girls are forced to confront the legacy of the past and to distinguish this from the choices they have in the present.
The Lost Girls taps into the most primal of a parent’s fears: that they will outlive their child. Jane reflects on this in the course of the novel:
Having Jess — loving Jess — made me understand just what it meant to lose a child. I felt vulnerable, exposed and, some days, panic-stricken. I knew that children died — and I knew what happened to their parents.
Until she became a mother herself, Jane had never understood the scope of Angie’s loss from her parents’ perspective. ‘But now, I understood that my survival hinged on another’s in a way I’d never imagined.’
Jane’s decision not to have any more children is a ripple effect of a murder more that took place more than a decade later. It a subtle notion, underpinned by a deep understanding of human psychology — and typical of James’ skill for breathing life into her characters.
There’s a lot of crime fiction that requires suspension of disbelief. But reading The Lost Girls, you are more likely to be nodding your head than shaking it.
One minor quibble: I could’ve lived without the epilogue. But I don’t like Hollywood endings either, and I know I’m in a minority there. I’ll be curious to see what other readers think.
The Lost Girls by Wendy James (2013) is published by Michael Joseph/Penguin Books and released 26 Feb 2014.
This review has been submitted as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014.
Listen to my review of The Lost Girls on Radio National Books and Arts Daily here.