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A gripping search for a parent lost to the wind

Crime: The Orphans, Annemarie Neary, Hutchinson, hdbk, 340 pages, €16.99

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Annemarie Neary: an artful ending

Annemarie Neary: an artful ending

The Orphans by Annemarie Neary

The Orphans by Annemarie Neary

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Annemarie Neary: an artful ending

Born in Northern Ireland and now resident in London, Annemarie Neary's second crime novel follows hot on the heels of her debut, last year's well-received Sirens. She's also won awards for short fiction, and it's not difficult to see why: Neary is a fine prose writer and The Orphans is a very well-written book - markedly so for this genre.

This is a story of parental loss, the emptiness left behind by a childhood tragedy. In 1992, sister and brother Jess and Ro (short for Sparrow, a nickname; his real name is William) are living in Goa with their parents. Mother Sophie is a hippie-dippie flake, who likes playing guitar, hanging out on the beach and sleeping around - so far, so relatively harmless.

The dad (also William), though, is a darker kettle of fish, to mangle my metaphors. He's a drug-user, a bit of a dodgy geezer - though remembered as a good-hearted enough sort - and involved with some serious, seemingly dangerous criminal types.

One day, the parents disappear. The children are left abandoned on the beach. They become something of a cause célèbre and, over the years, periodic tabloid fodder. Soon after the disappearance, William Snr's body is found - but Sophie remains lost to the wind.

Jess, the elder, deals with this enormous dislocation better: she's now a lawyer, with a partner and child, and a nice house in London. She has her problems, as everyone does, but is coping relatively well. Ro is different. He's blown his inheritance on obsessive, futile chases, literally around the world, for his mother. Now in his late twenties, he's something of a basket base, very damaged, pretty weird, in both thought and deed.

Neary's story takes up in the present day, when Ro arrives to stay with Jess and her oily, dislikeable fella Charlie. The brother has just come from a fractious meeting with Mags, a youthful acquaintance of their mother, in Sophie's Irish hometown.

Meanwhile, an alternative passport used by Sophie, under her birth name, has been found. Ro's obsession spikes up another level. And when he meets Maya - the Swedish partner of Eddie, an old pal of the parents, who was in Goa when they went missing - Ro becomes convinced that she's really Sophie in disguise. Now all she needs is a little "encouragement" to reveal her true self…

The plot of The Orphans is fine, nothing spectacular. There's a sameness about these "domestic noir" mysteries that makes them feel uninspired, or flattened somehow: character names, the types of jobs they do, the slowish pace, themes of family and childhood, and Secrets From The Past, even the (annoying to me) use of present tense.

But the ultimate plot resolution is pleasingly surprising, the ending is artful and beautifully ambiguous, and as mentioned, the writing is excellent. Indeed, in a funny way, it almost feels too good for the material it's servicing. There's no Jeffery Deaver-style narrative pyrotechnics here - but Neary's prose is so well-crafted, it makes up for that.

Darragh McManus's novels include Shiver the Whole Night Through and The Polka Dot Girl

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