Adam Thorpe’s novel Missing Fay begins with the disappearance of a teenage girl. Was she abducted, perhaps murdered, or did she simply run away from her bleak home on a Lincolnshire “sink” estate? With a mentally unstable mother and a stepfather who’s as much use as a wet slice of bread, who could blame 14-year-old Fay if she just upped and left?
No-one in the town knows where she is or if she is still alive. Even by the end of the book, the question remains unresolved. The point of the book however is not to solve the mystery, but rather to show how lives intersect without any real connection established.
Missing Fay is structured in chapters written from Fay’s point of view, interspersed with perspectives from a disparate group of people who crossed Fay’s path before and after her disappearance.
They include Mike, a second-hand book dealer convinced that Fay is haunting his shelf stacks, and Howard a retired steelworker who catches a glimpse of her as she runs with her dog through a local park. Romanian healthcare assistant Cosmina, finds a discarded coat in the woodland although only in retrospect does she wonder if this once belonged to the missing girl. And then there’s David, a New Zealand ecologist on holiday with his family, who becomes fixated with the the “Have you seen this girl?” posters he sees around the town.
Fay is the kind of girl that people notice, sometimes for the wrong reasons. She gives the impression of being tough, streetwise and ‘mouthy’. But few in the town take the time or trouble to get to know what lies beyond.
The exception is Sheena, who manages a pricey children’s clothing boutique for yummy-mummy customers. When Fay arrives on her threshold one morning, Sheena anticipates she’ll be as useless as all the other work experience students that have crossed her path. But she comes to learn that first impressions are misleading: the girl is intelligent, charming and funny.
The six characters who encountered Fay initially seem to have little to link them but Thorpe has cleverly planted connections throughout the novel.
Fudge crops up at several points for example. Chris, a postulant monk, makes it for the monastery’s gift shop . Sheena eats it. Eco-warrior David takes his family to the monastery.
Then there are hints which may or may not prove significant. Several people mention seeing a blue car in the area and Fay mentions a creepy looking guy who lurks in the bushes. .
The fact we don’t instantly pick up on some clues adds a further layer to the meaning of the book’s title. We ‘miss’ these signs just as much as the six people in the story let Fay slip out of their consciousness. Missing Fay isn’t about a physical disappearance but how we fail to connect with each other. Just like the characters in the novel, we miss opportunities and misread signals.
That’s not the only message Thorpe conveys through his novel. Attitudes towards immigrants feature largely. But we also get the futility of attempts to ‘save’ the planet. David and his wife vouchsafe consumerism and are determined to raise their children in a way that makes minimal impact on the environment. But when he looks upon a wind farm he reluctantly admits that it is “a hopeless gesture, really, against the infinite kilowattage of nature herself”.
I’ll admit that I wasn’t excited at the prospect of reading this book when it was selected by my book club. I thought it would be too similar to Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor which I had read (and raved about) the previous year. That too featured the community reaction that follows the disappearance of a 13-year-old girl.
I enjoyed Missing Fay but on balance I prefer McGregor’s take on this topic. It’s less conventional in structure, contains some wonderful imagery and has characters that are more rounded. Thorpe cleverly captures the unique perspectives of each character and their different voices but overall the novel didn’t have as much cohesion as I would have liked.
Missing Fay by Adam Thorpe: Footnotes
Born in Paris, Adam Thorpe grew up in India, Cameroon and England, following the postings of his father, who worked for an American airline. After graduating from Magdalen College, Oxford in 1979, he founded a touring theatre company before teaching mime and physical theatre in London’s East End. He has lived in the Cevennes in France for over 25 years .
He’s published 11 novels, 2 short story collections, 6 poetry collections and a non-fiction book On Silbury Hill. His first novel Ulverton was described by John Fowles as “the most interesting first novel I have read these last years” and was awarded the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize.
Missing Fay was published by Cape in 2017
This review was published at Bookertalk.com in 2018. This is an updated version with formatting changes to improve readability and upgrade to the WordPress block editor platform. It is re-published in support of #throwbackthursday hosted by Davida @ The Chocolate Lady’s Book Review Blog.