As Mark Douglas photographs a pod of whales stranded in the waters off Edinburgh’s Portobello Beach, he is called by his son’s school: his wife, Lauren, hasn’t turned up to collect their son. Calm at first, Mark collects Nathan and takes him home but as the hours slowly crawl by he increasingly starts to worry. With brilliantly controlled reveals, we learn some of the painful secrets of the couple’s shared past, not least that it isn’t the first time Lauren has disappeared. And as Mark struggles to care for his son and shield him from the truth of what’s going on, the police seem dangerously short of leads. That is, until a shocking discovery…
A pitch perfect examination of familial relationships are at the fore of this compelling new thriller by Doug Johnstone. As the synopsis states, the reader is drawn into the tale through a series of reveals, that allow us to bear witness to the deep, dark secrets that exist within families, and yet, by the same token, illustrates the ability to bring forth forgiveness for the sins of the past.
Mark Douglas’ life is turned upside down by the suspicious disappearance of his wife Lauren, leaving himself and his six year old son, Nathan, in a state of turmoil. Lauren has disappeared before suffering the effects of post-natal depression in the wake of Nathan’s birth, and with Mark’s knowledge that his wife is pregnant again he fears that these events may well be repeating themselves. However, as the plot unfolds and Mark receives some devastating news, it becomes clear that with the police dragging their heels, there are darker motives at work in relation to her disappearance than at first thought, leading Mark and his son into extreme danger.
As events unfold we discover Mark’s previous propensity for violence, admittedly in defence of his wife Lauren initially, but enough to cause the police some suspicion as to how much of a part it plays in his wife’s disappearance. As Mark struggles to keep mind and body together for the sake of his son, Johnstone builds the air of tension and frustration, that Mark experiences and more crucially how this dark corner of Mark’s personality rises again as he labours to discover the truth. We see a man quick to anger under pressure, but is he as guilty as the police suspect? I’m not telling…
His relationship with his son is perfectly portrayed, showing the mantle of parenthood is no easy one with Mark experiencing all the normal peaks and troughs of becoming a sole parent to a lively six year old boy, confused by sudden the absence of his mother. As events spiral out of control and Mark embarks on his own personal crusade to uncover the truth, his anger levels ratchet up, until he questions his own sense of control even in relation to his son, and this provides another interesting facet to the overall story. There is also a poignant theme of familial reconciliation built into the plot, as bridges are rebuilt between Mark and Lauren’s mother, following a violent altercation some years previously, centring on Lauren’s relationship with her father. This works well within the plot, and adds a solidity to the portrayal of human relationships, which I think is the stand out feature of the novel.
As the reasons for Lauren’s disappearance come to light and the story denigrated into some fairly unbelievable confrontations, I must admit by not being truly convinced by the whole set-up and the central premise. However, as I have already identified the strength of the characterisation and the development of relationships as the main hook for this novel, any weaknesses in the playing out of the plot are easily ignored, as Johnstone so readily engages us with his heartfelt portrayal of Mark and Nathan and the minutiae of their relationship, reeling from the loss of their wife and mother respectively.
Doug Johnstone is a writer, journalist and musician based in Edinburgh. His most recent novel, Hit & Run, was published by Faber and Faber in March 2012 and was an Amazon #1 bestseller. His previous novels are Smokeheads (2011), The Ossians (2008) and Tombstoning (2006). His work has received praise from the likes of Irvine Welsh and Ian Rankin. Read more at Doug’s blog here: http://dougjohnstone.wordpress.com/
Read another review at Rush Hour Reads: http://rushhourreads.blogspot.co.uk/
‘Gone Again’ due to be published 7 March 2013- Faber & Faber)
(With thanks to Faber & Faber for the ARC)