Reviewed by Harriet
I’ve been a fan of Laura Wilson since I discovered her first DI Ted Stratton novel, Stratton’s War, published in 2008. Four more in this intelligent and beautifully researched series followed, tracing the London-based detective inspector through his experiences during and after WW2. Probably like many people, I was looking forward to hearing more about Ted, but Wilson’s latest novel breaks entirely new ground. The majority of the novel is set in the present day, but much of the plot is dependent on events that took place more than forty years before, in the late 1960s.
The combination was 0570, the month and year of her daughter’s birth. Ordinarily, this would have been a very bad idea, because – like the date of your wedding anniversary or something obvious like 1234 – it was easily guessed, but as Janice had never told anyone, husband or friend, that she’d had a child, she reckoned it was safe enough.
Having unwillingly given up her baby for adoption when she was just nineteen, Janice Keaton has tried, without much success, to live her life as though it never happened. She’s always fantasised about a reunion with her daughter, but when it happens it’s nothing like she hoped for. In fact when she get’s Suzi’s phone call, she’s shocked to discover that her daughter and grandchildren have been living with her estranged brother in their old childhood home for many months, and that Suzi has only rung her now to tell her that Dan has died. And when they meet, Suzi seems distinctly distrustful, and her ten-year-old granddaughter Molly refuses to believe that Janice is her grandmother.
But Molly has a secret of her own. She is certain that she isn’t really Molly at all. Instead, she is sure she is Phoebe Piper, a girl of her exact age, who went missing on a family holiday seven years before. The age-progressed photos that have been circulated showing what Phoebe would look like now bear an uncanny resemblance to Molly herself, and some cryptic notes and mysterious photos she has found in Dan’s room and in the garden shed seem to support this theory. Then, while Suzi and Janice circle warily around each other, trying to sort out their complicated feelings for each other and also to discover the cause of Dan’s death, Molly suddenly goes missing, throwing everything and everyone into a state of complete panic and confusion.
Janice’s efforts to unravel these mysteries, made even more complex by the discovery of a dead man in a nearby wood, force her to go back to the distant past, when Dan was a roadie for a highly successful rock band and Janice herself a groupie. The problem with all this is that everyone in those days was generally stoned or tripping on acid, and even though one of the band members, the once gorgeous Joe Vincent, is living nearby, he’s no help, having more or less fried his brains forty years earlier and never fully recovered.
There are certainly things in this novel to remind us of real life events – Joe Vincent’s sad history is very similar to that of Syd Barrett, the 1960s casualty of the Pink Floyd, and the disappearance of Phoebe seems to owe much to the highly publicised abduction of Madeleine McCann. But the story Wilson builds around these goes far beyond mere parroting of history. One of the most agonising scenes in the novel is the one where Phoebe’s mother agrees to meet Molly, fighting her desire to believe that this may indeed be her own lost daughter. In fact mothering seems to be a predominant theme of the book, chiefly of course in Janice’s attempts to form some kind of relationship with the distrustful and angry daughter she has never known, but also in Suzi’s relationship with her two children, probably itself affected by her feelings about her own sense of having been abandoned by her birth mother.
So, though this is in one sense a crime novel, the one actual crime that’s committed doesn’t happen until well into the book and is almost incidental to the rest of the events that take place. But that doesn’t make it any less readable – many mysteries are still there to be solved and the past continually casts its shadow on the present. This is a sensitive and thought-provoking novel.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books
Laura Wilson, The Wrong Girl (Quercus: London, 2015). 978178263100, 374pp., paperback.
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