Helen Callaghan- Night Falls, Still Missing

On a cold, windswept night, Fiona arrives on a tiny, isolated island in Orkney. She accepted her old friend’s invitation with some trepidation – her relationship with Madison has never been plain sailing. But when she approaches Madison’s cottage, the windows are dark. The place has been stripped bare. No one knows where Madison has gone. As Fiona tries to find out where Madison has vanished to, she begins to unravel a web of lies. Madison didn’t live the life she claimed to and now Fiona’s own life is in danger . . .

The third book from new-to-me author Helen Callaghan, Night Falls, Still Missing, transports us to the wild and desolate backdrop of a winter in Orkney, and the strange disappearance of a woman working on an important archaeological dig. This was an altogether different and interesting read for me, though not for the reasons I imagined when I set out to review this one, as the ‘crime’ element of the book became increasingly less relevant as I read on…

Somewhat perversely, I will start by saying that what I really didn’t like about this book was so central to how much I enjoyed other aspects of the book. That is to say, straining a largely far-fetched and predictable plot through such a compressed set of characters who were so eminently dislikeable that I would have totally increased the body count with no hesitation at all. Veering from the painfully woolly Dr Fiona Grey, summoned to the island on the whim of her friend the intensely self-obsessed, man-mad and narcissistic Madison (who also has a de rigueur creepy stalker), and then to the largely banal and irritating group of Madison’s archaeological cohorts, this is truly a rich pick ‘n’ mix of people you would desperately not want to be stuck in a confined space with. Consequently, whether by design or coincidence by the author, my lack of interest in these characters and the weak plot, afforded me an opportunity to look elsewhere in the book for some points of interest, and this proved a much richer source of enjoyment indeed.

I know this is a strange thing to say, and maybe sounds a little harsh, but this book would have been really quite stunning if the half-baked crime plot had been omitted. What Callaghan has is a really quite impressive prose style when she is focussing on the backdrop to the story in terms of her depiction of the natural elements of the landscape, and the feel and atmosphere of the location itself. I feel that if Callaghan had focussed more on this, and developed the glimpses of the more interesting aspects of her characters, which became overwhelmed along the way, a much stronger book would have emerged. Perhaps controversially, and with no disrespect to Callaghan herself, the book could have evolved into a more than satisfying fiction read, replete with naturalistic detail, but with small incidences of human connection and disconnection, against the rugged and beautiful landscape she so perfectly describes. I also loved the referencing of archaeological detail, the overarching theme of the past impacting on the present, and the illuminating historic references pertinent to Norse legend and so on. It’s so frustrating that all these good elements had to take a back seat to the central narrative that was ultimately quite ridiculous and  unsatisfying. Unfortunately, a book of two halves for this reader, but displaying clear evidence of a suppressed, but good, writing style that maybe didn’t quite suit this genre on this occasion.

(I received an ARC via Netgalley UK/ Michael Joseph)

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