It’s when mystery writer Sophie watches barmaid Kim ‘restocking the shelves with Fevertree tonic waters’ that I realise why Lisa Jewell’s move from modern romance to thriller writing has been so wildly successful. The Night She Disappeared explores coercion and obsession, neither of them light topics, but it’s so amazingly relatable. Strong characters and a blistering plot deliver for readers – but Night has so much more.
So many of Jewell’s novels feature young adults, often as active but fairly powerless protagonists. I guess that most of Jewell’s readers have been young adults, and can relate both to the strong emotions but also the rhythms, rituals and rites of passage that make it into these pages. Multi-generational points of view – often but not always within families, functional or otherwise – mean that Jewell can explore her themes at various different levels and also to contrast them. So Sophie is having a big romantic adventure and getting no work done. Tallulah is experiencing two contrasting romances while bringing up a toddler, studying to be a social worker and getting no time to herself. Now, it’s quite possible that the reader has experienced no toxic relationships, nor brought up a toddler, nor studied to be a social worker. So Jewell uses other ways to make we the reader feel part of this world. She name-drops brands like Fevertree or trends such as travel Insta that we’ll know from our own lives; she talks about cosmetic brands’ promises with a knowing wink. And, gloriously, she allows one of the characters to provide a much-needed rollicking to a particularly appalling counterpart. It’s sweary and sarcastic and righteous and just. We readers live for these moments, and Lisa Jewell knows how to deliver them.
Sounds like a warm world, doesn’t it? With the Little Hither Green Detective Agency (full disclosure: I used to live in Hither Green and it was a sleepy backwater of a suburb) and a school that isn’t really a boarding school but almost could be and a gothic mansion with an architectural feature that totally lives in cosy crime, we could be forgiven for expecting whimsy and delight. But instead we get psychological control, physical control and a pack of lies told left, right and centre. No one is telling the truth either to themselves or to others. Tallulah kids herself she can extricate herself from jealous, suspicious Zach. Zach listens to his mother’s vicious and vindictive gossip, builds a wall around himself and tells himself that he will similarly build a wall around his girlfriend and son, whether they like it or not. ‘I’m not particularly interested in what you want or don’t want,’ he tells Tallulah, charmingly. Scarlett knows that the facade she presents to the world is as fake as her hair colour; it isn’t clear to anyone including herself what is behind that facade, or whether she’s in control of it. Even with the lightness provided by Jewell’s style, this world is bleak indeed.
In the end, it comes down to this: what happens if you push someone just a bit too far. And that, too, is something to which we can all relate.
In order to write this book, Lisa Jewell had to mix up her usual practices. She ended up renting a writing space as her usual spots (her kitchen table or a coffee shop) were occupied by her family or just unavailable due to lockdown. I wonder whether this had an effect, conscious or unconscious. Then She Was Gone and The Family Upstairs were particularly unremitting in their tales of psychological and physical abuse. The Night She Disappeared contains shocking, dark and permanently-lasting twists, including in its epilogue but perhaps because they are sustained over a shorter period of time they feel less relentlessly violent. As such it’s a good entry point into the Lisa Jewell experience. An ideal summer pick.
Thanks to Random House for the review copy.