Lost Girl by Adam Nevill (book review).

May 28, 2017 | By | Reply More

Adam Nevill is a British writer of supernatural horror who has so far published eight novels and a collection of short stories. Given that most of his work falls into the horror genre, ‘Lost Girl’ (2015) is a bit of a departure as it’s a near future dystopian thriller.

The story is set in the Southern English county of Devon in the year 2053. Extreme climate change has had a catastrophic impact across the UK and the rest of the globe and everyday life is almost unrecognisable compared to today. Much of the world has descended into anarchy and war and millions of refugees have fled the heatwaves of the equatorial regions for the slightly cooler parts of the world found at higher latitudes, such as Great Britain. Society has largely broken down, gangs are rife and the forces of law and order are virtually non-existent.

In the midst of all this chaos, we meet an unnamed man, known throughout the book as ‘the father’. He is searching for his six year-old daughter who was snatched from the garden of his house two years earlier. Such child kidnappings were increasingly common but the victims were normally either rich people’s kids, who were ransomed for huge sums and then returned or refugees’ kids, who were easily taken and whose disappearances caused little public outcry. Neither was the case here. The father’s presumption has therefore been that his daughter was snatched by a local paedophile.

Although the authorities tried to help, they were overwhelmed by the demands on them and simply couldn’t dedicate much time or effort to the abduction of a single child. Left to their own devices, the father and his wife, Miranda, sold their house and spent the proceeds on increasingly desperate attempts to keep the case in the public eye. When the money ran out, Miranda moved back in with her parents in the West Midlands, while the father refused to give up on his daughter and stayed in Devon.

No longer encumbered by the need to explain his movements to Miranda, the father goes looking for local paedophiles, hoping that by confronting them verbally, he’ll find out useful information. Unsurprisingly, this doesn’t work. However, he quickly comes to the attention of a somewhat shadowy group, unofficially allied to the police, who are prepared to pursue the child abduction cases that the police don’t have the time or manpower to tackle.

They recruit and set him to work breaking into the homes of minor local paedophiles and threatening them with violence until they divulge whatever they know. The first few ‘jobs’ go well, with the soft targets he’s initially put up against caving in to minimal threats and giving him useful intelligence without him having to do anything too unpleasant to them. However, he’s no hard nut and, the moment he comes up against an offender who hasn’t been broken by his time in jail, things go south pretty quickly.

The result of that disastrous encounter is that the father only escapes with his life by shooting dead not only his target, but a second man who was also in the house and who tried to kill him first. In one fell swoop, the father becomes a murderer, something he had never contemplated. However, before killing the men, he obtains from them the name of someone who may know more about his daughter’s disappearance. The problem is, this person is no lonely paedophile but a known child trafficker who works for the largest and most powerful gang in the South West, a gang whose members allegedly worship some sort of god of chaos.

Is the father willing to go to the lengths that will be necessary to take on this gang in the seemingly never-ending quest for his daughter? If he does, will there be anything left of his soul by the time he gets to the truth? Is that a price he’s able and willing to pay?

The issue at the heart of this novel is very simple. If someone snatched your child, what would you be prepared to do to get them back? As a father of two children myself, I have no real idea what lengths I might ultimately go to in these circumstances. I think of myself as law-abiding, honourable and with a strong moral compass. Would any or all of that survive contact with the circumstances, people and options which confront our protagonist or might I suffer a similar gradual fall from grace? Having read this novel, I can’t in all conscience say that I would fare any better than he did, which strikes me as a testament to the power of Nevill’s prose.

Adam Nevill is an accomplished storyteller. His descriptions of the grimy, heat-ravaged, decaying country and society that form the backdrop to the action are spot on, pulling you right in to the story. Action scenes virtually beg to be filmed, so immediate and visceral is the narrative. Most impressive of all, however, is Nevill’s treatment of the book’s central character. The father is pursuing a mission of such obvious moral validity that it would be easy to turn him into a crusading angel whose entire existence is seen as above reproach. Nevill does the opposite. In the very first chapter, we see that the kidnapper was only able to snatch his daughter because he wasn’t actually watching her as he was supposed to be doing. Instead, the father was busy writing an email to a work colleague to arrange an adulterous liaison. In a similar vein, as the father graduates from intimidation, through violence, to torture and ultimately murder, Nevill doesn’t hide the excitement and, at times, arousal which the father gets from the exercise of power over other human beings, although he balances this by also showing us the crushing feelings of guilt which rack the father afterwards. What you get, therefore, is the real deal, a living, breathing, fallible protagonist who is recognisable as an everyman for his times, neither hero nor villain but an ordinary joe just trying to do something incredibly difficult under awful circumstances. As a result, despite having many obvious flaws, the father ultimately evoked great sympathy from me.

‘Lost Girl’ is a complex, morally ambiguous novel which explores the fragility of modern civilised life through the gradual destruction of one man’s moral compass as he tries to right the terrible wrong inflicted on his family. Adam Nevill mixes strong, three-dimensional characters with a high stakes, high energy plot which pulls you in and doesn’t let go until the final page. Warmly recommended.

Patrick Mahon

May 2017

(pub: Pan MacMillan, 2015. 436 page small enlarged paperback. Price: £ 7.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-4472-4091-4)

check out websites: www.panmacmillan.com and www.adamlgnevill.com

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Category: Books, Scifi

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