The Night She Disappeared
A question for our times: what kind of literature was produced during the COVID-19 pandemic? While many of the books published in the last year of a half were written pre-COVID, we're increasingly starting to see more novels hitting the shelves that were penned during the pandemic. "This was my 'lockdown novel,'" writes Lisa Jewell in the opening to the Acknowledgements in her just-published The Night She Disappeared. "All annually published writers will have one of these in their list now." And how crazy and sordid can the mind get in lockdown—especially when, as Jewell bemoans, the coffee shop "offices" of the novelist are shuttered?
As thriller writers go, Jewell tends toward the milder side—the ideal escape for those seeking something between a cozy mystery and a relentlessly paced or violent ride. Her novels are often dark mysteries but also family tales that allow the reader to anticipate the worst (or the many possible worsts) yet still sense the chance for a happy ending of sorts. Her latest begins in the suburbs of England with Kim watching her young grandson, Noah, and waiting for her daughter, teenaged Tallulah, and boyfriend Zach to come home from their first night out at a pub since becoming young parents. But Zach and Tallulah don't come home, and Kim's desperate attempt to find out what happened to the couple leads to more than a year's worth of twists and turns. Why such nonchalance from the family of Tallulah's college acquaintance, Scarlett Jacques, at whose house they were last seen? What to make of hints that Zach was going to propose that night and that he may have had violent tendencies? Did they disappear into the woods surrounding the ominously named Jacques residence, Dark Place? (Every good English mystery must of course have a manor with a haunted feel, yes?) As the case grows colder and colder, Kim continues to believe that her beloved daughter is alive. Meanwhile, detective fiction writer Sophie has just relocated to the area and finds herself immersed in the drama when a sign on her property prompts her to dig, and she discovers the ring Zach had bought for Tallulah. Who told Sophie to "Dig here?' And will reopening the case lead to the worst of all conclusions or find Tallulah and her beau alive and well?
The Night She Disappeared jumps between both perspectives and timelines, offering windows into the minds of Kim, Tallulah, and Sophie, while bringing readers the story from the vantage point of before the disappearance, the time right around it, and the following year. Characteristically, Jewell takes psychological fiction and imbues it with a sense of heart, making her characters not only vehicles for the plot, as can be the case with some fast-paced and plot-driven fiction, but also likable and sympathetic. It's hard not to hope Kim will find her daughter alive; her pain is raw and palpable, and her maternal devotion to Tallulah is, in a genre generally discomfiting, actually quite heartwarming. The author also knows the world of which she writes: prep schools and wealthy estates may be the stuff of many eras, but mysteries driven by Wikipedia, Google, and Instagram, peppered with almost nonstop phone scrolling from all characters is surely fiction born of our times.
Jewell's novel does raise a question that similar novels often tend to prompt. When you read a mystery that is, in theory, grounded in reality, how much plausibility do you seek or expect? Is it a stretch to believe that Sophie, while taking her time to unravel the mystery, always nevertheless seems to arrive at the right answer, never veering far off track? If there are elements of implausibility, Jewell redeems them with an overall engaging book. While the novel seems to leave some of the smaller strands of plot unraveled, the story that propels the narrative indeed comes together satisfyingly, and, as the author's reputation anticipates, keeps the pages turning with suspense. As readers, we don't just close the covers with an answer to the primary mystery but have also explored the relationships and motivations at its heart with perhaps more depth than many authors would allow us to do.
Lisa Jewell's novels have done quite well for themselves while readers across the globe sought fictive escapades during the pandemic. Now, here is Jewell's "lockdown" offering, which has thus far received high accolades from reviewers from being one of her best. What other literature of COVID times awaits us from well-known authors?
Click here to request The Night She Disappeared from our catalog. While Jewell has previously published nineteen novels, including Then She Was Gone and The Family Upstairs, that may appeal to fans of her more recent work, read on for some read-alike recommendations if this current bestseller is up your alley.
Under the Harrow, Flynn Berry
The Last House on the Street, Diane Chamberlain
The Daughters of Foxcote Manor, Eve Chase
Grace is Gone, Emily Elgar
The Carrier, Sophie Hannah
What She Knew, Gilly Macmillan
The Winter People, Jennifer McMahon
Such a Quiet Place, Megan Miranda
The Sanatorium, Sarah Pearse
The Fates Will Find Their Way, Hannah Pittard
The Au Pair, Emma Rous
Little Disasters, Sarah Vaughan
The Lying Game, Ruth Ware