Diana Hendry

The loss of innocents

Here are two novels about that most harrowing and haunting of subjects — children who go missing.

The loss of innocents
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The Missing Boy

Rachel Billington

Orion, pp. 304, £

Forgetting Zo

Ray Robinson

Heinemann, pp. 278, £

Here are two novels about that most harrowing and haunting of subjects — children who go missing.

Here are two novels about that most harrowing and haunting of subjects — children who go missing. Rachel Billington’s Missing Boy is Dan, a 13-year- old runaway. Dan’s disappearance marks the beginning of a nightmare for his parents, Eve and Max, plus aunt Martha. Has Dan run away or has he been kidnapped? Will he be found? The if, where and how are the questions that torment them. As Ronnie, the police liaison officer puts it, though families vary, when there’s a missing child the suffering is always the same, a pattern of ‘disbelief, anger, terror, despair, endurance.’

On her website Billington describes the structure of The Missing Boy as ‘a kind of thriller with the boy’s safety under constant threat’ and it’s this that gives the novel its suspense. We follow Dan on a dangerous journey that has him sleeping rough, encountering an ex-prisoner (shades of the Pip/Magwitch encounter of Great Expectations), living in a squat and getting involved with latter-day hippies, travellers and drug dealers.

But the thriller-like structure is really a disguise for what is actually a very moral and Christian tale. Dan’s disapperance forces his parents to examine their marriage and their lives. Eve, a drama teacher, is rather more concerned with her group of difficult inner- city children than her own son. Max, a book rep and would-be poet, drifts between the beds of his wife and sister-in-law Martha. In fact drifting is what he does best. The themes of family Lies and Loyalties — the title of Billington’s 2008 novel — continues in this one, with the sisters’ relationship fraught with jealousy, dependence, love and rage. Martha, a childless widow, works as a prison officer, a job that demands the kind of order and control lacking in her personal life — as is romantic love.

The main reason given for Dan running away is that he’s been deeply disturbed by a school-friend’s suicide. He’s told no one of his distress. This is perhaps only an indication of a larger problem, the almost commonplace emotional neglect of his parents. Towards the end of the novel Dan’s father reflects that as parents they had always put their own needs before Dan’s — ‘No one had told them that parenthood was about sacrifice.’ This, combined with the suggestion that through suffering Eve, Max and Martha are brought to a state of greater love, understanding and honesty, is really the moral heart of the novel.

Remembering Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time in which the loss of a child drives the parents apart, I’m left with the thought that the moral force of Billington’s story sometimes works against psychological authenticity. Having said this, The Missing Boy, Billington’s 20th novel, is brilliantly crafted and a compelling read.

The missing child of Ray Robinson’s novel has been abducted. ‘Inspired by real events’ it says at the beginning of Forgetting Zoë. The real event is obviously the abduction in Austria of Natascha Kampusch. Zoë, like Natascha, is ten when she’s abducted and imprisoned in a bunker, only escaping when she’s 18. Is this faction? An imaginative re-telling? Maybe both.

Thurman Hayes, who abducts Zoë, is nothing like what we came to know of Wolfgang Priklopil. The latter was often described as a nonentity. Hayes has killed his father and murdered a girl before he kidnaps Zoë. Nor does Robinson’s novel take place in the suburbs of Vienna. The story moves between a ranch in Arizona where Hayes keeps Zoë in the bunker, and an island off the coast of Newfoundland, where Zoë’s mother, Ingrid, endures not only the devastating loss of her daughter but public sympathy turning to suspicion.

Robinson is good at landscape. The bleakness and wildness of these settings add to the mood and intensity of the story. Curiously, Robinson has chosen to use fictional newspaper and police reports about the missing Zoë as if to authenticate what hardly needs authenticating. There’s something slightly bizarre about making fiction out of a real-life story that remains far stranger.

Nevertheless, what makes this an impressive novel is the vividness of the writing — such memorable turns of phrase as ‘the snap and drool of the press pack’ — and the exploration of the frightening and fascinating bond that develops between captive and captor. Robinson’s Electricity was described as ‘an eviscerating debut’. Forgetting Zoë is uncomfortably mesmerising.