Gone, but not forgotten

Gone Girl, the BBC’s The Missing and the influx of domestic suspense novels have long had readers glancing at their families with new suspicion. We have become familiar with the taut scenes in kitchens, the loaded stares across dinner tables and the narrative in which a family is unspooled, revealing the secrets and lies hidden beneath a functioning exterior. At first glance, I thought that Good as Gone would be another fast-moving thriller in this vein – enjoyable but not necessarily insightful. However, I found on reading that Gentry delves into the emotions involved in losing a child and the effects on the family left behind in an interesting and nuanced way.

When she is 13-years-old, Julie Whitaker is taken from her family home during the night at knife-point. The only witness is her younger sister Jane, who is hiding in a wardrobe at the time of the incident. After eight years, her family still haven’t quite given up hope that she might return safe and sound. Then, one night, the doorbell rings and it looks like Julie has come home. However, it appears that things aren’t quite as they seem and Julie’s mother, Anna, starts to suspect that perhaps the woman standing before her isn’t her missing daughter after all.

The mysterious figure of Julie is the driving force of the plot. The woman that appears after all this time is at once mysteriously ethereal and heartbreakingly real. Anna first sees her “pale hair, all lit up in the rosy, polluted glow of the Houston sunset”, but this angelic image is quickly brought back down to earth with the reality of the experience which has left her with a face that looks “both young and old”. Anna’s growing suspicions around whether this woman is who she says she is are escalated by the addition of the familiar recovering alcoholic detective character, who wants to atone for his past by solving the case. Even though the reader will recognise this character, he is used lightly, only assisting Anna’s search for the truth. It is the story of the family that is central to this novel, rather than any kind of detective’s case in the traditional sense.

Julie’s mother, Anna, acts as the conduit through which the reader understands much of the story, allowing the novel to explore the complex emotions involved with losing one child and beginning to resent the other. She has become numb with grief and exhausted with hoping, detaching from her family and convincing herself that Julie has been dead for “centuries”. Her fraught relationship with Jane, Julie’s sister, reveals the blame and anger tied up with her grief. In one memorable moment, Anna’s resentment of Julie for being unable to stop Julie being taken, for being the survivor, bubbles over: “‘You let her go once!’ I’m yelling now. ‘You watched her walk out the door!’”

Gentry’s exploration of the damaged family dynamic, however, also speaks to the feelings of detachment, which can be so rife during teenage life. Anna realises that Jane has been leaving her journals around the house for years with the hope that her mother might read them and gain insight into her life. Jane is not quite comfortable in her skin and the constant changing of her hair is a search for an identity she can’t hold onto. The difficult relationship between Anna and Jane reflects the wide-reaching repercussions of loss, whilst also speaking to more universal difficulties in the parent/child relationship.

As the novel progresses, the reader encounters various stories of girls being groomed, running away from foster homes and being subjected to sexual, physical and emotional abuse. Rather than dwelling on the horror of these experiences for effect, Gentry sensitively explores the way in which young women could come to be in these situations, how events escalate and evolve. The description of a young woman experiencing repeated rape by men she calls “Petes” is harrowing and affecting, but importantly Gentry focuses on the emotions of the young woman and her experience rather than gratuitous scenes of abuse. The novel describes the moment she is forced into sex having accepted weed to numb the pain of a backstreet abortion: “From now on she was choosing everything that filled her, and right now it was Nothing, right now it was Pete, right now it was a thing she had to do in order to earn the warm syrup of smoke coating her insides with glitter paint.” By drawing the reader into the mind of the young woman the novel asks readers to confront uncomfortable ideas and choices first-hand, rather than watching on as a shocked bystander.

Going beyond the typical thriller, Good as Gone manages to be both a multi-faceted and intelligent look at abuse, loss and damaging relationships and an addictive read. The mystery of the question “Is it really Julie?” will keep you hooked right up to the end, but it is the dynamic of a family shattered by loss which sits at the heart of this gripping novel.

Good as Gone is published by Harper Collins and is available to purchase here.

The image shows the book cover. The title, GOOD AS GONE, is written in orange capital letters with the author’s name, Amy Gentry, below in white font. The background of the cover is mainly a white wall, and in the bottom right hand corner there is a full-length mirror reflecting the image of a young girl with plaited hair and a short party dress facing the corner of a room so that only the back of her is visible.