In Claire McGowan’s incredibly assured debut novel The Lost, forensic psychologist Paula Maguire looks at the photographs of a group of missing girls and notes
All of them lost, in their own ways
The same could be said for all the characters in this tightly plotted and intricately woven thriller as McGowan explores what it means to be literally and figuratively lost, and how we cope if we are the ones left behind.
The story is set in the fictional Ballyterrin (cased on McGowan’s home town of Rostrevor), a small Northern Irish town sitting close to the border with the South of Ireland. Paula Maguire left Ballyterrin for London in 2000, but now 12 years later, she is called back home to join a Missing Persons Unit, set up to look into cold cases of disappeared lives. Paula has her own reasons for focusing on this line of work and as her team are drawn in to investigating the disappearance of two young girls who had links with a local religious group, the lines between past and present become frighteningly blurred and it seems that history may be repeating itself in the town of Ballyterrin.
The Troubles may be over, but the pain that it wrought is still very raw and the violence of the past clings to the present despite attempts to move on. These girls may just be runaways, but as the team looks into their lives, it seems that the past may have something to do with where they are now.
The story is a good one. As Paula tries to fit in with her investigative team, we also see her trying to fit back in to her old life that she so abruptly ran from all those years before. She must navigate a new relationship with her ex-boyfriend Aidan who is now running the town paper and make amends with her old friend Saoirse, whom she hasn’t spoken to in twelve years. McGowan cleverly explores both how suffocating and comforting small town life can be compared to the anonymity of a city like London and how, in a town like Ballyterrin, your past is never your own. Paula is hiding her own secrets too, she is trying to find something she has lost and it seems that being home is harder than she thought it would be.
Paula is a great character – smart and focused but also reckless and prone to impulsive behaviour, which makes her interesting and relatable. She plays by her own rules and yet is also hiding a great amount of pain. In McGowan’s capable hands, we realise that Paula is as much lost as the girls she is looking for and as the title takes on multiple meanings, the book gains in depth and emotion. The supporting characters, from Paula’s father to her investigative team are also well drawn and the dialogue, peppered with Northern Ireland vernacular is particularly strong.
The setting feels like a character in its own right in The Lost, the brooding, rain drenched streets of Ballyterrin hiding secrets and lurching from generation to generation without confronting it’s painful past.
Here already were the hills around her home town, the rolling mountains veiled in rain. It must be a beautiful place, people always said – people who didn’t have to live there – and she always shrugged. Scenery was one thing, twisted hatred another. And the past was still everywhere, creaking with spectral life.
McGowan has written a subtle and insightful post-troubles thriller, exploring a different type of crime that has sprung from the sectarian violence that blighted Northern Ireland. She dips her toe into subjects like the Magdalene laundries, the travelling community and long held religious divides with subtlety and care and creates a layered thriller that is evocative of place and character. It is both grounded and realistic, but also incredibly well-paced and builds to a conclusion I for one didn’t see coming. It is also nicely set up for a series and I for one look forward to reading more about Paula Maguire.
I received a copy of The Lost from the publisher through NetGalley in return for an honest review.