Review: The Lost by Claire McGowan

This book, due for publication on 11 April, was sent to me as a review copy, and I’m really glad it was. I know Claire as an acquaintance on Twitter, and I have to admit I’m always a little chary of reviewing or reading for people I know, in case the book is terrible and then I have to lie (or “forget” to write the review). Fortunately, no such worries in this case.

The story is set in Ballyterrin, a small town in Northern Ireland close to the border with the South (which is still, despite the end of the Troubles, very much a foreign country). Paula Maguire, a forensic psychologist, is reluctantly called home from London to be seconded to a newly-formed cold case squad to investigate the massive numbers of disappeared across the area, lost during the years of sectarian unrest.

However, this is a town where everyone has a past, and where religion still separates the community along sharp lines. The violence of the Troubles is in the past, but it is still very much present in family histories, as close and intimate as parents killed, lost or profoundly damaged.

The story unfolds gradually as Paula recognises a pattern of disappearances, vulnerable teenage girls who have vanished or killed themselves, all of whom have links with a church organisation with an insidious hold over the town’s youth. Meanwhile she rekindles links with family and old friends, struggling to deal with her own past as she unpicks the lives of the missing girls.

The story is compelling, with fine degrees of shading and a subtly nuanced approach. Paula ran from Ballyterrin in her teens, and as the novel progresses we discover the full story of what she ran from and how it continues to have an impact on the present, for her as well as for others who were involved at the time. She seemed in some ways a driven character, in others surprisingly feckless – she is perceptive and analytic of the motives of others and highly focused on discovering when became of some apparently long-dead girls, but she also lurches through a couple of ill-advised one-night stands and consistently puts herself in dangerous situations through her disregard of the advice of others. Her internal monologue is revealing; the hard-bitten, demon-driven maverick detective is a well-known literary trope, and Paula is an interesting sideways glance at this.

The town of Ballyterrin is a brooding presence throughout the novel, created in grim detail with its history of sudden and startling violence combined with stifling suburban and religious values, and Claire’s use of Northern Irish vernacular in the dialogue (and occasionally in the prose descriptions) grounds the book firmly in its historical and geographical setting. In the final analysis, the shakedown at the end of the book combines all these elements and sets up a number of further lines for the sequel (which I happen to know is nearing completion). I look forward to reading it.

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