LOSING YOU by Nicci French opens on a day that should be shot through with excitement. But instead it turns deadly for Nina Landry, single mother of daughter Charlie and son Jackson. Today is her 40th birthday, and since it falls just before Christmas, they, accompanied by Nina’s boyfriend Christian, are leaving for a long-planned Florida vacation. They live on the remote Sandling Island, which is joined to the coast of East Anglia by a tidal causeway. Since their plane is not scheduled to leave Heathrow until 6 pm, the whole family thinks they have plenty of time for last-minute errands and packing.
But when Nina arrives home, she finds Charlie’s chores still undone. The girl had promised that if she could attend a sleepover the night before the trip, she would come home early enough to take care of everything. Determined not to get upset, Nina takes care of her own tasks, then finally sits down for a cup of tea and to open her birthday cards. To further relax, she takes a bath. But while drying her hair, she hears pounding at the front door. She is confronted by at least a dozen people serenading her with “Happy Birthday to You” in her house; one of them explains that Charlie arranged it. But still there is no sight of her.
One hour after the next slips past, as the oblivious revelers continue celebrating while Nina becomes more frantic. She is secure in the fact that Charlie, who was eagerly looking forward to this trip, didn’t run away. But as the “tide was advancing, creeping up the mudflats…it was misty, a gauze hanging over everything,” her instincts were sending frantic SOS signals. Yet again she’s distracted when her cousin Renata --- who is deeply depressed, frightened and neurotic, and who is supposed to dog sit --- arrives amidst the chaos. Her husband has left her.
After leaving Renata to settle herself in, Nina calls everyone she can think of who might know where Charlie might be, but has no luck. At this point she starts to hustle the mostly drunken partygoers out of the house. When they leave she decides to call the authorities. A reluctant PC Mahoney is not impressed with the information Nina gives him and makes clear that he doesn’t believe that Charlie really disappeared. He tells her that he will send a car to scout around for her. With a sinking heart and visions of all kinds of horrors, she comes to terms with the fact that no one believes her and she alone will have to find her daughter.
Nina discovers that Charlie was last seen early in the morning, picking up the papers she was to deliver on her route. She seemed fine and took off on her bike the same way she did every day. Only one person claims to have chatted with Charlie as she cycled by, but most of her customers had called to complain because their paper never arrived. Having no more information after speaking with Charlie’s friends and anyone else who might have seen her, Nina is in a full-blown panic. She admits to herself that Charlie can be difficult and confrontational, often secretive but not sadistic. The lonely search for her child sends Nina into psychological places no parent should have to visit.
The knuckle-biting race to find Charlie will capture readers with or without children. The nightmare every parent dares not think about is brought to the fore full force --- the fear, the adrenaline rushes, the hope that turns to hopelessness and back again, the fatigue, the breathless moments when the heart feels that it is going to burst and the gruesome pictures of violence and death that spin in and out of the searcher’s mind. Nina is a very believable first person narrator, and this story could not be told with such bone-chilling reality any other way. Readers sympathize and empathize with her and with Charlie as well; after all we don’t know what has happened to her either.
LOSING YOU is written without chapters, which speeds up the pace of the narrative. The straightforward plot races like a tsunami as it rushes to its frightening climax. With two devices --- the island with a rising tide and the looming vacation --- French offers readers a riveting experience. The story is universal, the emotions are viscerally human and the length is such that some may choose to reach the conclusion in one sitting.
LOSING YOU is the ninth book from the husband and wife team of Nicci Gerard and Sean French, who are masters at writing hair-raising thrillers. Each of their novels has a gravitas that keeps readers involved and panting. For fans and those new to Nicci French, this is a novel you should not miss.
Reviewed by Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum on January 12, 2011