Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Sometimes it’s very hard to go back to the old home town, especially after being away for several years, and especially if one left as a young person and returns as an adult. Homecomings like that can be fraught with all sorts of tension and challenges, even if one has fond memories. Let’s take a look at how that plays out today, and turn the spotlight on Claire McGowan’s The Lost, the first of her Paula Maguire novels.
Maguire is a London forensic psychologist who works with the police on missing person cases, mostly. Her work is noticed, and she gets a request to go back to her home town of Ballyterrin, in Northern Ireland, to help set up a cold case review team. Funding for the team has finally gone through after two girls, Magella Ward and Cathy Carr, have gone missing from the area. Maguire is reluctant to go back; she had her own reasons for leaving in the first place. But her father, who still lives in Ballyterrin, recently broke his leg, and this would give her the opportunity to look after him. Besides, there are the missing girls, and that’s a special interest of hers. So, she finally agrees to go.
She soon joins the team, which will be led by Inspector Guy Brooking of the Met, and everyone starts in to work. Tragically, Cathy Carr is soon found dead. Now, the team has the job of tracing the girl’s last weeks and months to find out whether she left of her own will or was abducted. Meanwhile, they’re also looking to find out what happened to Majella Ward.
There soon turn out to be several possibilities. For one thing, neither girl’s family is particularly helpful. Cathy Carr’s family don’t see what else they can tell the police that they haven’t already. And Majella’s Ward’s family are travellers. They know very well what most people think of their group, and they are most definitely not inclined to trust the police. And, often enough, a family member is involved when a young person disappears. For another thing, both girls had been visiting a place called the Mission. The Mission is a religious group that claims to be trying to keep girls away from early sex, drugs, and drinking, and on the ‘straight and narrow.’ Could the Mission have had something to do with what happened to these girls? When word comes that another girl associated with the Mission, Louise McCourt, committed suicide not many months earlier, it seems more and more likely that that might be the case.
Slowly, Maguire, Brooking, and the team start to put the pieces together. It takes time, and several proverbial wrong turns, but, in the end, they find out what happened to the three girls. They also find that it ties in with two other missing girls who disappeared in the 1980s, and with the town’s past.
The novel takes place in Maguire’s home town. It’s the sort of town where people know one another and have for a number of years. And the Maguire family has been a part of that fabric. So, when Maguire returns to Ballyterrin, everyone knows very quickly that ‘wee Paula Maguire’ has come home. In the course of the novel, she reunites with plenty of people who knew her when she lived there, and that’s got its awkward moments. For instance, Maguire’s old flame Aidan O’Hara is now the editor of the local newspaper. Another old friend, Saoirse McLoughlin, is now a doctor. There are other people, too, who remember her. And that’s not always for the good. Maguire left Ballyterrin abruptly, and for reasons that she’s never really discussed, not even with her closest friends. So, there are some hurt feelings. But there’s also the sense that Maguire belongs there.
The sociocultural setting for the novel is contemporary Northern Ireland. Although the official hostilities of the Troubles have ended, they’ve left their mark. People still know who’s Catholic and who’s not. And people have to live in the same town with others who were on the opposite side in the war, and who might even have killed a friend or family member. Readers who don’t want to read a novel about the Troubles will be pleased to know that this novel doesn’t focus on that particular conflict. But those times have deeply affected the area, and the characters.
This part of Northern Ireland is very traditional in a lot of ways. Abortion is strictly illegal, an unplanned pregnancy is a cause for real shame, especially in teenagers, and homosexuality isn’t exactly condoned. That culture plays a role in the way several characters in the story behave.
The novel is told mostly from Maguire’s point of view, so we learn about her. She and her family are Catholic, although her father was in the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). She’s not really observant, but she went to the local Catholic schools, and so on. She has her own sorrows and ‘ghosts,’ but she doesn’t drown them in drinking, so to speak. She’s far from perfect – she makes mistakes both personal and professional – but she has solid instincts, and she is good at her job.
The solution to the mystery is a very sad one (and, no, in case you’re wondering, the person responsible is not a crazed serial killer). Finding out the truth doesn’t make anyone happier, really. But it does bring closure, for what that’s worth. And the solution gives insight into the way history can impact the present.
The Lost is the story of a small Northern Ireland community, and how it deals with (and has dealt with) tragedy. It takes place against a distinctive cultural, historical, and social background, and features a sleuth who is a part of that background. But what’s your view? Have you read The Lost? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 18 June/Tuesday, 19 June – Plugged – Eoin Colfer
Monday, 25 June/Tuesday, 26 June – A Cut-Like Wound – Anita Nair
Monday, 2 July/Tuesday, 3 July – Involuntary Witness – Gianrico Carofiglio