Lost Girl by Adam Nevill – a review by Gary Fry
Everything’s girl at the moment, isn’t it? Check out the bookstores and the cinema, and there you’ll meet a girl on a train, one who’s simply gone, and another in a spider’s web. Man, has that girl been busy lately. But now, in Adam Nevill’s latest novel, she’s got herself lost…and it’s up to the father to find her.
None of this implies that Nevill has simply hitched his wagon to some kitschy thoroughbred. Sure, the title of his book – Lost Girl – won’t harm sales, but I think that’s testament to the author’s canniness and commercial acumen, especially when working in a genre – the darker side of speculative-future crime (here), if not (as in previous works) full-blown horror – which needs all the promotional impetus it can muster.
And Nevill’s careful market placement doesn’t end there. Lost Girl’s plot resembles quite a few recently successful tomes, including Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which has a father and child navigating the dystopian horror-show which is a possible-world-to-come; Stephen King’s Cell (soon to be a film starring that man John Cusack), in which a guy travels across a country, amid a zombie outbreak, seeking his errant son; or perhaps even more closely (and going back a little in time) Ramsey Campbell’s The Nameless, where a daughter similarly goes missing and is sought after by a desperate parent. Oh, and let’s not forget our brogueish friend Liam Neeson and his series of Taken movies: the repeatedly snatched daughter and his special-skill solutions to achieve her (inevitable) retrieval.
Again, I’m not suggesting that Nevill is being derivative or even cynically locating his fiction amid flash-in-the-pan trends; rather, that he’s canny in his understanding of cultural pressure-points, the acupuncture of market calibration. I sincerely hope it all works out for him, because Lost Girl is one savagely gripping read, from its bitter start to its grievous end.
The plot is reasonably simple, and I won’t give anything away by saying that the central character, a guy referred to only as “the father” throughout the book, was once married and had a young daughter, and that the daughter was snatched from the family garden during a future period (the 2050s) of global unrest involving climate change, migration snarl-ups, faltering economies and even nuclear frictions.
Indeed, it’s this tension between the private and the intercontinental which dramatizes the book’s opening sequence, a punchy account of that Bad Day, which put me in mind of a similar sequence at the start of Ian McEwan’s A Child in Time: the father’s horror at having taken his “eye off the ball”, the terrible realisation that his child is gone, and all the guilty recriminations that follow.
Then: cut to the near-future, a few years down the line. The father, devastated by this event (which has also done its worst to his marriage), has become a kind of vigilante, investigating the girl’s disappearance in a much more brutal and less techo-savvy way than that Irish charmer Neeson could ever manage. In fact, if this book was a new entry in the Taken series, it would be directed by Shane Meadows. There is no comic-book violence or improbable insights here, just the spicy brutality of torture and confession, the messy business of information-acquisition, all staged in an authentically depicted “street” setting.
These set-pieces take place against a background of fragmenting social order, a skeletally functioning British society in which resources are stretched to breaking point and police enquiry is restricted to limited periods, before cases have to be let go. This necessary vacuum in the legal / justice system creates an appropriately permissive climate in which the protagonist – the father – can operate. A man self-styled in combat and fired by bitter-minded rage (he’s described as “grief incarnate, vengeance and desolation made flesh”; he’s the kind of guy who wonders why people “were so poorly built to withstand suffering when its possibility had always been so assured”), his gaudy enquiries take him from unwitting informant to informant, a veritable roll-call of vile paedos and brainless muscle from the underworld.
It’s an arresting series of encounters, with Nevill craftily varying the book’s structure and narrative content to avoid repetition. In one scene, the father might be discussing (with his mysterious assistants, who communicate by phone or turn up during chases) an approach to some new contact, and in the next he’s up close to his target with guns and sprays, cord and knives. These rapid transitions reminded me of a similarly effective trick pulled by Stephen King in Rose Madder, where Norman Daniels experiences mind-skips and moves from innocuous activities to murderous rage in the space of several paragraphs. It’s a neatly dramatic effect which eliminates the tedium of too much linear description, and Nevill performs the job with knowing aplomb.
Deepening the force of these events is a feeling expressed by the father that he isn’t sure who he’s working for or who his regular contacts are. During his restless witch hunt for perverts and public menaces, might he be serving the aspirations of a hard right seeking to wrestle control of the country in forthcoming elections? This, along with the repeated descriptions of global decline and escalating panic, add a dimension to the narrative which many similar vigilante-type fictions lack. Indeed, this is not just a private affair, but a very public one, and Nevill’s tugging together of both personal and social strands is impressively detailed and thoroughly convincing.
The world-building is similarly striking, with Torquay (around which much of the novel’s action takes place) particularly well evoked, its newly transformed locale packed with tawdry activities, with hookers and crims (there’s some great dialogue from undereducated streetwise fraternities), litter and graffiti. One passage, detailing the drawing of a creature which will play a powerfully oblique role in the book, is pure Nevill, a brilliantly dirty pen-sketch of a figure all bone and claw, hood and rags. Nevill’s world and its off-camera denizens are often as idiosyncratically delineated as Ramsey Campbell’s.
And the whole of this – the father’s investigation, so many scenes of brutality, secretive informants, accumulating hints of some dark force at work behind world events – hurtles towards a breathless conclusion involving the person responsible for the child-snatching. Now, I did feel as if this part of the story came a little from leftfield; other than a few tangential hints early in the book, we hadn’t previously been introduced to this individual. Is that a fault? Perhaps not; perhaps it’s not that kind of book. But in any case, I think this section did involve a minor shortcoming. In describing the father’s connection to the villain, Nevill’s prose feels a tad laboured, as if the publisher had suggested that he bulk up the book (or Nevill had anticipated this advice), adding to the page count. It’s only a minor issue, but I did feel as if this part of the novel felt like an extensive info-dump, the reader pulled aside to the wings, updated on backstage events, and then thrust back into the play.
But soon things get underway again, and the final sequences are satisfyingly downbeat and include a convincingly low key supernatural scene (which harken back to earlier Nevill fictions, the grubby fingerprints of those Last Days cults staining the page). I can’t say much more without giving the plot away, but the ending could be read in two ways, as either mission accomplished or mission failed.
It’s a suitably ambiguous conclusion to a novel which recognises the complex lives we all lead, that of private intimates (family, lovers, friends) as well as global citizens. It’s how these two intermesh that determine the way things go for us, and by exploring these double realms of experience with such conviction, Nevill’s narrative tears us apart at the end of the book. It’s all too true in our troubled times, and I fear the novel will grow increasingly topical as the years unfold.
All in all, this is a taut, strikingly written, and provocative book which won’t let you leave it alone until it’s inked your mind with its bleakness. In short, more sterling work from one of our best dark scribes.