Wednesday 18 October 2017

Peripheral lives stained by a teenager's abduction

Fiction, Missing Fay, Adam Thorpe, Jonathan Cape, hardback, 336 pages, €19.49

'Underrated': Adam Thorpe has been writing novels for 25 years
'Underrated': Adam Thorpe has been writing novels for 25 years

Sam Kitchener

Adam Thorpe is so often called an "underrated" writer that it can no longer be true. His first novel, Ulverton (1992), after all, was re-issued five years ago by Vintage Classics. But Thorpe lacks the profile of contemporaries Will Self or Kazuo Ishiguro - maybe because he doesn't have a distinctive style. Fluent and prolific, he ranges easily between voices and subjects.

Still (1995) took the form of an autobiographical screenplay written by an expat English director living in Texas; Hodd (2009) was a revisionist account of the Robin Hood story, narrated by a medieval monk. Sometimes, as with Ulverton, an episodic history of a fictitious Wessex village, Thorpe adopts different voices and genres in the course of one book.

His 13th novel, Missing Fay, continues in this vein. Written from multiple perspectives, its principal subject is Fay Sheenan, a 14-year-old English girl who in January 2012 goes missing from the Lincoln council maisonette she shares with her mother and leering stepfather, Ken. Jon McGregor's recent novel Reservoir 13 also dramatised the disappearance of a teenage girl, but was more interested in the way life went on in its Pennine setting, with the disappearance slowly crowded out of communal memory. Missing Fay does the opposite: it explores how such an event stains the lives of people who aren't even that closely involved with it.

Fay is a bright child, wary both of strangers in vans ("only pervs slow down") and her stepfather, a dope-smoking amateur musician. Interspersed with the chapters written from Fay's point of view are the perspectives of characters who cross her path before and after she disappears.

These include New Zealander David, an ecologist touring the Lincolnshire coast with his family who becomes fixated with Fay's MISSING posters; Howard, a retired steelworker who meets her the day she disappears; Mike, a second-hand book dealer convinced that Fay is haunting his shelf stacks; and Sheena, a surrogate grandmother figure who employs Fay in her toddlers' clothing shop.

Some performances are more successful than others. Fay's voice is oddly quaint: "dunno bout them tossers" she comforts Ken after a dispiriting gig, "but I reckoned you was tops". David, by contrast, is a convincing schlemihl struggling to conceal his fury when beaten at mini golf by his pre-teen daughter.

The perspectives are threaded together with care and panache. We first meet Gavin, the sallow young deputy manager of Fay's local foodstore, when he helps Howard bury his cat, which has been tortured to death, ostensibly by local youths; later events suggest his role in this baroque act of cruelty might be less innocent.

After that, it feels inevitable that Gavin should be one of the last people to encounter Fay before she disappears. This plotting creates suspense, but that isn't the only point. Most of the men in the novel - not just Gavin - entertain fantasies about vulnerable women. David ogles a young camp-site worker. Howard ogles Cosmina, the Romanian care-worker nursing his wife. Cosmina also looks after Mike's elderly mother; Mike ogles Cosmina. Without ever appearing pious (he's too good-humoured), Thorpe sketches a world from which it is hardly surprising that girls like Fay go missing - or want to escape.

Too often, vulnerable young women are reduced in the male imagination to objects, either of fantasy or sympathy. In Missing Fay, Thorpe attempts, with typical self-effacement, to give them a voice of their own.

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