Written by Cath Staincliffe — Gap years have become such a rite of passage for university students in the UK, that parents hardly dare to admit their dismay when their children set off to face the dangers of travelling around the world by themselves. After all, in an age of mobile phones, blogging, Facebook and Skype, how hard can it be to keep track of your offspring even in remote locations?
Cath Staincliffe cleverly takes on a common experience and builds on every parent’s hidden fears to create a powerful nightmare scenario. Lori Maddox has just graduated from university and has set off to travel round the world armed with her trusted camera and her family’s best wishes. Her parents separated when she was a toddler, but her happily remarried mother Jo and her successful businessman father Tom both follow her adventures on her blog. Lori falls in love with China and decides to prolong her stay there, finding work as an English language teacher.
Then all communication stops and her increasingly frantic parents report her missing and decide to head for China themselves to discover what happened to their daughter. As they struggle to navigate a foreign country with no knowledge of the political sensitivities, customs or language, they feel that the authorities are not doing quite as much as they could to move the investigation forwards. They decide to take matters into their own hands and become amateur detectives, not without some dramatic consequences, of course.
This is not an action thriller, nor even a tense psychological drama where you are constantly on the look-out for baddies. Instead, it is a character-driven drama, a sensitive portrayal of a family’s reaction to the disappearance of a child in a country far away, where none of the usual rules of policing, cultural interactions or conversation apply. Staincliffe always excels when it comes to making us ask ourselves ‘What would I do if I were this person?’ and thereby gets us to almost interact with her main characters. Yes, they are flawed but so easy to relate to, and the complicated relationships of step-families are extremely well described. The pace is more leisurely than fans of high-octane adventure stories might expect. The plot is fairly linear and without too many far-fetched twists. Although the motivation of the perpetrator is a little hazy, overall the story feels realistic, albeit without a classic happy ending.
One slight hesitation – there is probably a little too much description at times. Not all of it is relevant, and this slows down the narrative somewhat. However, if you are reading this more for the characters and to better understand the atmosphere and lifestyle of Chinese cities that have suddenly appeared and expanded in the middle of nowhere, this book truly succeeds in that respect.
For more from this author see our review of Split Second from back in 2012.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars