Sunday, 4 May 2008

Losing You (and the Mersea connection)

I found Losing You quite literally unputdownable, demanding to be read at every possible moment through a single day, eg while waiting for the kettle to boil, cleaning my teeth, or stirring the baked beans (there was nothing else on offer in the food line until I'd finished it!)

It's Nina Landry's 40th birthday, and she's packing ready to catch a plane to Florida with her teenage daughter Charlie and 11-year-old son Jackson, together with her new boyfriend, who's meeting them at the airport. As the morning ticks by, she becomes increasingly anxious about Charlie, who hasn't come home from a sleepover at a friend's house the night before. Soon it is clear - Charlie is missing. The police are called and Nina herself begins a frantic search for her daughter. Has she run away or has she been abducted? Is she alive or dead? Written in real time, the sustained tension becomes almost unbearable as the minutes become hours - and yet, just as in real life, there's no escape. Nina has to confront this head-on, and everything else in her life is gradually peeled away until she (and we) are conscious only of one thing: the pared-down essence of a mother's desperate love for her child, as every parent's worst nightmare unfolds.

Every time I write a review of a crime novel I seem to sprinkle it with disclaimers (as I did earlier today) along the lines of 'I'm not really a fan of crime fiction as a genre - I just enjoy good writing'. Perhaps I should stop saying this. On the other hand, it is true that a crime novel needs to recommend itself to me on a deeper level than its clever plotting. I'm a bit dim when it comes to twisty plots - I don't wrestle with them intellectually, I just go along for the ride. Losing You is vastly more than a plot, however: it's a passionate, sensitive and wholly convincing exploration of an ordinary woman's extraordinary (but at the same time very ordinary - most of us, thank heavens, don't have our love tested to these limits) love for her child.

I can't better Maxine's excellent review of this book for Eurocrime , with which I wholeheartedly concur in every respect - except one. She writes:

'The claustrophobic setting, on the remote (and, from what I can tell, fictional) Sandling Island in the east of England, adds to the atmosphere.'

Sandling Island is, in fact, very heavily based on Mersea Island - the muddy isle from whence these Musings ooze. It was discovering this in the authors' post about Losing You on the Moments in Crime blog - and realising that they had such a keen appreciation of the island’s landscape and ambience - that prompted me to buy the book instantly.

Of course, the strict geography of the island has been adapted to fit the requirements of the plot, but many authentic elements both contain and drive the action and the atmosphere is spot-on. The fact that the tide often covers the causeway, cutting the island off from the mainland is critical, and descriptions of the coastline, the miles of deserted muddy dikes, the wintery chill and greyness, take on an increasing menace despite not being over-dramatised.

'Here, on Sandling Island, it was all horizon: the level land, the mudflats, the miles of marshes, the saltings, the grey, wrinkled sea. Now it was mid-morning and from where I stood - facing west towards the mainland - I could see only the glistening mudflats with their narrow, oozing ditches of water where waders were walking with high-stepping delicate legs and giving mournful cries, as if they'd lost something. It was low tide. Little boats tethered to their unnecessary buoys tipped at a steep angle to show their blistered, slimy hulls; their halliards chinked and chimed in the wind.'

So while I defy any reader not to identify with Nina as the time in Losing You runs out, being the fortysomething mother of a teenage daughter and an 11-year-old son, living on Mersea Island with a black labrador, I’m aware that my capacity for empathy with the central character was pretty heavily weighted. The spooky coincidences of these similarities undoubtedly made the unfolding events of the plot doubly agonising and horrifying. I was pretty much a nervous wreck by the time I reached the final pages.

But I'm OK again now.

Postscript: I've handed Losing You to my own island teenage daughter to read and will be fascinated to hear what she makes of it, and whether she considers the portrayal of Charlie and her friends to be as authentic as I found them from my mumsy perspective. Maybe I'll get her to do a guest post here so we can all find out what she thought. However, I very much doubt that she could argue with one of the best descriptions of a teenage girl's bedroom I've ever read:

'Clothes lay on the carpet where they had been dropped. There were a belt, an empty violin case, a fake tigerskin rug, pencils, a broken ruler, scissors, a pair of flip-flops, CDs with no cases, CD cases with no CDs, a string bag, a couple of teen magazines, a book splayed open, the top half of a pair of pyjamas, a large stuffed green lizard, a couple of small piles of dirty clothes, a broken hairdryer, scattered items of makeup, disparate shoes and three bath towels. Charlie seemed to prefer using a clean towel after each bath or shower, though not to the extent of putting the dirty ones in the washing-basket. Her laptop computer sat on her desk with a tartan pencil case, several notebooks, a pink-capped deodorant, a bottle of Clearasil, a shoebox, a furry cow, various assorted piles of schoolwork and much, much more.'

In an afterword to the novel, Sean French and Nicci Gerrard explain:

'We didn't have to travel very far to research Charlie's room, which in its epic untidiness is a combination of two of our three daughters' rooms, except not quite as bad.'

. . . . lol, rofl


Susie Vereker said...

I discovered your amusing blog a couple of days ago and wondered vaguely if Losing You was based on where you live. How interesting. I found the book gripping too, but didn't review it at such good length.

Juliet said...

Hi Susie - welcome to the muddy island. I've just been enjoying a visit to your blog and the Transita sites. I especially love the photos of your garden. My ancestral roots are firmly in Hampshire - a very different landscape from these marshy eastern wastes!

Anonymous said...

Great post, and thank you for your kind words about my review. I should perhaps have been clearer in my piece: I was aware that Sandling Island was based on a real place, but my research while writing the review did not reveal where that place is. So I wrote that Sandling is fictional, which is true, but I am fascinated here to read the story of the real place.
It was a book that once simply could not put down, I agree -- so tense!
I have two daughters aged 17 and 12 but the 17 year old is pretty tidy, really. I suppose Kingston on Thames is pretty boring in comparison to Mersea!

Juliet said...

Hi Maxine - a tidy teenage daughter? Wow! How did you manage that? Your parenting skills must far exceed my own!

Anonymous said...

Er, no, I just leave them to it! Parenting skills have I none -- or at least, that is what being a parent has taught me.

Anonymous said...

Hi Juliet. I have recently read 'Losing You' and having 'roots' in Mersea I wondered if it was based there. After discussing it with my mum (who grew up in West Mersea)and recommending the book to her I decided to Google it and see what I found. And I found your brilliantly titled 'Musings from a muddy island'. Aside from the info re; Losing You I was delighted to find so much material on Mersea and it's other bloggers etc...

I have many memories of Mersea both as a child and as an adult. My Grandparents ran the village shop at Queens Corner until the mid/late 80's and my Grandma,uncles and cousins still live there. I now have the pleasure of sharing the island with my husband and young children - who love it as much as I do.

I have really enjoyed browsing through your blog and identify strongly with your comments about not having the time to update you blog enough etc etc... My blog hasnt been updated for nearly a year now! With a young family, my own business and a theatre company, I am finding Twitter a lot more practical and realistic. However reading your 'musings' (a favourite word of mine!) I may have been inspired to revisit my 'blogspot'.

Thanks for the insight and the great pictures. I will be in Mersea Aug bank holiday to celebrate my Grandma's 80th - so maybe I'll take the time to take a few pics...
A lovely find.
Ruth x