The airy, beach holiday cover of this novel belies a dark, gripping, and psychologically sinister tale. The Disappearance of Emily Marr tells the story of two women, Tabby Dewhurst and Emmie Mason, each escaping Britain and their own problems on the Ile de Ré off the coast of France. Alongside, unfolds an account of an affair whose dramatic and tragic outcome leads to the demonising in the media of the title character, Emily Marr, as ‘Britain’s most hated woman’ (p. 42).
The way the novel is structured means that we move between characters, backwards and forwards through time, our understanding of the full story fragmented – at times obscured or misunderstood- as we try to put the pieces of the puzzle together. Emily’s notoriety is made apparent to the reader almost immediately, although the reasons for this infamy prove less forthcoming. It is a clever device, and Candlish demonstrates a deft hand at keeping this tightly plotted narrative ticking over. I read the whole thing in one sitting, unable to put the book down until I understood what had really happened, and there are a couple of neat twists along the way that keep the reader in that off-kilter position that can make a novel so gripping.
The book switches between Emily’s story, told in the first person, and Tabby’s told in the third person. This disparity also contributes to the fractured tone of the novel, lending a further sense of unevenness to the structure and keeping the reader from getting too comfortable. Inevitably, one story is stronger than the other and I found Emily’s to be much more compelling. However, in a sense, Tabby’s slow-paced chapters helped to build the energy and momentum in the Emily sections, and seeing the two story arcs come together in unexpected ways was part of the fun.
On the one hand this novel acts as an indictment of social media, and the impact of a 24/7 sensationalist news cycle obsessed with dirt digging. The downfall of Emily as a sacrificial lamb led to the slaughter by the media is well handled. The desperate sense of claustrophobia created by the internet trolling, the ceaseless commenting, tweeting, emailing and the ripple effect as the story is picked up by every media outlet is tangible, upsetting, and all too recognisable. Yet while the novel seems to have very definite things to say about the morality of this kind of reporting, it is much more morally ambiguous when it comes to other aspects of the narrative, most notably adultery, but also, significantly, women’s relationships with each other.
The major problem that I had with this novel was that I found the female characters unlikeable. In order for the story to progress as it did there had to be a certain amount of selfishness, of self-interest, but I found that this quality made not only one, but most of the women in this book ultimately unsympathetic. This novel seems, as one of the characters towards the end points out, to be driven by women harming one another – ‘She left, recognising for the first time the role played in this affair by spite – plain and simple and, invariably, female’ (p. 409) – but this interesting idea and its consequences do not seem to be given the same space and consideration as other moral dilemmas, and I struggled to understand exactly what Candlish wanted the reader to take away from this.
My other quibble with this book was the ending. While I do enjoy an ambiguous ending and do not feel the need to have things tied up neatly, the close of this book was so abrupt and anti-climactic that I had to check that my edition didn’t have any pages missing. In an otherwise well-paced and gripping novel, everything comes to a close incredibly swiftly; even the storylines that do see some kind of resolution are brushed by very quickly, which is slightly disappointing given the author’s attempts to get you to invest in its characters.
That being said, Louise Candlish has written a very enjoyable and energetic novel that engages with topical debates which are very much of our own time, and asks larger social questions about privacy and the moral high ground. Just don’t start it when you have anything else to do, because this novel will hold you captive until you finish!