Burnt Paper Sky
Copy courtesy of the publisher
Rachel Jenner is now a single mother, divorced from her husband who has now married someone else. She’s preoccupied with this, it’s been a hard year for both her and her 8 year old son Ben since the separation.
Whilst out on a walk through the woods one weekend, Rachel allows Ben to run ahead, along a path to a swing. She follows along at a slower pace but when she reaches the clearing where the swing is, Ben is no where to be seen nor is their family pet whom he had on a lead with him. She searches everywhere, raising the alarm with others who are using other parts of the wood but they don’t find a single trace and the police are alerted.
For DI James Clemo, this case is opportunity. To prove himself. To take that next step. He’s been chosen to lead the investigation but it doesn’t take long before it’s taking its toll on him too. A disastrous press conference leads the nation, led by the press to turn on Rachel and soon the case is complicated by secrets and lies.
There’s a bit of a twist in me that makes me really excited to read books that focus on missing children. I think at some stage, we all imagine that worst case scenario. I’m a mother of two boys, 6 and 3 and I’m by no means a helicopter parent. When Rachel allows Ben to run ahead of her on the path I found myself thinking yeah, I’d probably do that too. And at the same time, if I read about a disappearance like Ben’s in the paper, I’d wonder to myself why she allowed him to run ahead. The information we’re given tends to inform our reactions to it.
This book sets the scene perfectly and watching Rachel come apart was like a work of art. She’s so real – she actually acted like I would imagine a grieving, desperate mother to act. She screws up the press conference, playing out something in her head that looks totally different for those watching and recording. But I found it believable that she’d lose control of herself and her emotions. I’ve seen people read out very carefully worded statements and sound like robots even as they’re desperately pleading for the return of a loved one. Rachel took that and set it on fire and in doing so, she turned almost the entire nation against her starting with the tabloid media. They camp outside her door, write accusing articles about her and stir up public opinion. The book includes articles from a website and comments posted on it and Rachel breaks the cardinal rule of the internet when it comes to a news article – you never read the comments. She can’t help herself, sneaking onto her sister’s laptop at night to read what people are saying about her, about Ben’s disappearance.
Rachel’s narrative is broken up by the story of DI Clemo. Part of the book deals with the ‘after’ (although you’re not really aware of after what exactly until the book deals with that part of it as a natural progression of the investigation) and Clemo’s life has been profoundly affected not only by the way in which the investigation impacted on his professional life but also the way in which it changed his personal life as well. He’s been ordered to see a department psychologist who will determine whether or not he is still fit to do his job. It shows how missing child cases affect those assigned to work on them – when a child disappears, there’s a timeline. The longer they are missing, the more the days tick by the less likely they are to be found safe and well. As they chase leads and look into all the connections Ben had with various people it becomes more complicated because there doesn’t seem to be anyone with a clear motive for taking him and yet it feels far too unlikely to be a crime of opportunity. And then there are the secrets in Rachel’s family which are definitely getting under Clemo’s skin. The police bring their own insecurities and issues into the investigation, no matter how much they might attempt to present an impartial front and Rachel’s countenance casts suspicion on her from many corners.
This book had me totally hooked from start to finish. I was really interested in the way Rachel was portrayed, especially given she admits that she was preoccupied for a while before Ben’s disappearance, thinking of her ex-husband and his new wife. Because we only have Rachel’s point of view, apart from the time DI Clemo is interviewing her ex-husband, we don’t get as much of his side of the story as I would’ve liked but Rachel’s does show their evolving relationship after Ben disappears. The way in which Rachel is targeted by the public is scary and yet believable. Statistics are against her, because often children are taken or harmed by a family member. Prior cases hurt her cause, because the public have seen people tearfully plead for the return of someone, a partner or a child, only for that person to later be arrested for the terrible crime. Many people assume Rachel is guilty until proved innocent and I actually think she copes remarkably well under some of this pressure. She never, ever stops searching for Ben, trying to find out what has happened to him.
Really enjoyed this debut and I can’t wait for Gilly Macmillan’s next book.
Book #39 of 2015