‘I was trying, desperately, to keep a hold on my world – my job, my vanished husband and my column – but I was disconnecting. The ties to my ordinary life were loosening, snapping, and the dark world of Bethan Avery was becoming more real than my own.’
Margot Lewis is an agony art for Dear Amy, a column in the local newspaper, and a Classics teacher at a school in Cambridge. Getting strange letters is par for the course, but nothing quite as disturbing has reached her postbox until she starts receiving cries for help supposedly penned by Bethan Avery, a local girl who vanished without a trace in the 1990s.
Half believing it’s a hoax, half horribly spooked, Margot involves the local police and is passed onto a cold-case investigator, who has been looking into the disappearances of young girls in the Cambridgeshire area over the past two decades. So the crux of the story is this; if the letters are to be believed, why is this girl, two decades after her kidnapping, writing to an agony aunt? Is she still being held captive? Is her abductor behind the other despicable crimes?
And, of course, these letters coincide with the disappearance of another young girl, Katie Browne – yet another victim who has vanished without a trace.
But as Margot becomes increasingly entangled in the case, her own demons start to come to the fore, and the fissures in her own memory and repressed history begin to deepen.
Casting the protagonist of your psychological thriller as an unstable divorcee (female, of course) with a history of mental illness/addiction is, I feel, wearing a bit thin. The unreliable narrator trope all often ends up feeling a bit too convenient a device for filling a multitude of plot holes and dropping a dramatic twist on the reader. The issue here was also that we spent too much time inside Margot’s head, and the outside world – i.e. the plot; the rest of the characters, suffered as a result. Being deeply immersed in the life of a character only works when that character is engaging and three-dimensional – and unfortunately, Margot and I didn’t really click.
However, there were redeeming parts of the novel that I enjoyed. Disclaimer: I never guess twists, but even with this caveat I’m confident that this is a cleverly executed bombshell. Despite a meandering start, once the pace picked up in the second half, the writing became increasingly taut and tense. The slow dawning realisation of truth – on the part of myself and the protagonist – was cleverly written, and it had me pause for a few minutes to piece it all together.
The narrative told from the point of view of the abductor, and the kidnapped child, was chilling in its evocation of pure psychopathy – but what I appreciated about this novel was that the violence was never overdone or gratuitous – Callaghan leaves the reader to fill in the blanks, to envision themselves the horrors. Sometimes what isn’t said is more powerful than what is.
Enjoyable a read though it ultimately was, Dear Amy isn’t one of those psychological thrillers I’ll be thinking about after finishing. However, if there was one thing that set it apart from others in this genre on the market, it was the writing style. Callaghan did an impressive job of creating a highly uncomfortable, sinister environment with her carefully crafted metaphors and tightly-wound prose;
‘The moon was round and fat, bloated with white light, as it sailed amongst the needlepoints of stars. I had the feeling I was falling, even though I was standing upright. The winter air coldly searched my wound, knifing into its unhealthy, unhealing heat.’
A worthwhile read, if you can overlook the flaws.
I received a copy of this book via NetGalley in return for a review.