Thursday, August 10, 2017


Title: When You Disappeared
Author: John Marrs
Publisher: Thomas & Mercer
Pages: 350

The institution of marriage harbours some of the worst manifestations of cruelty. John Marrs’ debut thriller, When you disappeared, is a wonderful example of this harsh truth.

Simon Nicholson, plagued by some inner demon with reference to his marriage, leaves his wife, Catherine, and three young children, James, Robbie and Emily, and quietly walks out of the life that was his for 33 years, taking nothing with him and plunging his family into grief and trauma.

Twenty-five years later, he returns, to offer his wife a meagre apology and to let her know that it was a grave sin that she committed 28 years ago that drove him away. 

The truth, Simon knows, will break her. He hopes it will torture her, as it has tortured him.

Back then, Catherine is badly shaken, afraid that he is hurt or dead, but when police searches reveal nothing, she is forced to pick up the pieces of her life and move on, for the sake of her children. 

But they are broken pieces. On the way to rebuilding their lives, the homebound Catherine nearly loses her home, and is forced to sell all their possessions, in order to save it. She begins to work 18-hour days and takes up three jobs in order to be able to pay the bills, nearly losing herself to a spiraling alcohol addiction.

Why did Simon leave? What pushed him over the edge? 
These are questions that plague Catherine and us.

The only thing we know of that fateful day is that something unforgivable has torn the couple apart. They have also lost a child, Billy, but we don’t know how, only that the death was tragic, and that Catherine still bears the scars of that loss.

As each fills the other in about the events of the 25 years they have spent apart, we see how Catherine suffered while Simon prospered.

We learn how he moved from England, to France and then the US, his moral compass askew, stealing, committing identity theft, implicating an innocent person falsely on a charge of intent to sell narcotics, and setting fire to a hotel that he helped restore to its glory, snorting drugs and sleeping with young girls, and killing, anything to drive his family out of his mind, while Catherine struggles to do the right thing for her family, suffers a miscarriage and copes with her trauma alone, while trying to shield and protect the children.

As the truth about what transpired over the course of the 25 years they spent apart is revealed, their recollections alternate with each other’s, each in a different reality, growing further apart, until they converge on the answers and we come to the fateful truth of what went wrong in their marriage, 28 years ago, and what happened to Billy. Their diametrically opposite understanding of what happened is an eye opener.

There is no second guessing just what prompted Simon to leave. The author gives us no clues, revealing the truth so slowly, we can barely see the layers being prised apart.

The flashbacks, covering their lives over the course of the 25 years since Simon left, as well as the years of their childhood and other events in their past, are written in the first person past tense point of view of both Simon and Catherine. 

On the other hand, the revelation of the truth today is in third person past tense. All the accounts are preceded by qualifiers detailing time- and datelines.

The changes in the PoV helped me understand whether the narrative was in the past or the present. It felt as if the author had given them the first person in the flashback so they could be honest, hiding nothing, while in the present comes the reckoning in the third person.

Through the course of the decisions and the actions the characters take, we become aware of just who they are. 

When Simon tells us about his mother who walked in and out of their lives, we are better able to understand him. His fascination with the absent parent, his desire to run away from his responsibilities, to chase the wrong choices.

It is amazing how quickly Simon learns to be different from what he is. He is willing to put every moral code aside in his quest for self'ish'-fulfillment, including committing murder several times, to punish Catherine. At the core of this attitude is his belief that If you scratch the surface of something perfect, you’ll always find something rotten hidden beneath. Through his account, Simon showed himself to be so fickle and remorseless, I wondered what he found so unforgivable in Catherine.

I found it easier to relate to Catherine. I rejoiced in her success, and felt sorry for the children who, afraid their daddy had vanished, worried their mommy would too. I felt her pain at not having closure. In Catherine’s words, My husband’s disappearance still had a curiosity factor attached to it, like the village had its own Bermuda Triangle.

Years later, Catherine is in a good place, personally and professionally, but I ached at the thought of all that Simon had put her through. I wanted to reach into the pages and slap him hard.

The mainstay of this book are Simon and Catherine, but Marrs paints a strong picture of Steven and Baishali, Roger and Paula, Douglas, Simon’s mother, Doreen, and the other characters whose lives coincide with theirs.

The author must be commended for holding our interest and keeping us anxious to know more, even as the revelations slowly tumble out. I also appreciate Marrs’ keen grasp of a woman’s emotions, how Catherine must feel to know herself, at first widowed, and then cruelly abandoned by the only boy to whom she gave her heart.

The book was a pointed indicator of how parents define their children, and how while some like Catherine are hurt, yet don't inflict their hurt upon others, many are like Simon, choosing to do as they were done by, hurting twice as much as they were hurt.

Both Simon and Catherine were rejected by their mothers, and yet Catherine emerges as the greater among the two. She mothers her kids with love, despite suffering at the hands of parents who didn't care about her. 

On the other hand, Simon's father, though not his own, loves him. That still doesn't stop Simon from projecting his hurt on to others.

The lesson in it is that old adage about whether we let circumstances make us bitter or better. Catherine chose to be a far better mother to her kids than she ever had. Simon, on the other hand, persisted in the delusion that he had no choice but to act the way he did.

Although grownup stories aren’t supposed to carry morals, this one reminded me of the need for communication within relationships, and especially within marriage. 

How much trouble could have been eliminated if only Simon and Catherine had sought answers and solace from each other. Simon would not have disappeared and we would not have the emotion- and nerve-wracking novel that is When you disappeared.

(I read a Kindle edition of this book through NetGalley.)

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