Julie Myerson's fifth novel opens with a brutal murder. In the car park of a quiet seaside town, Lennie is stabbed to death and then her heart is cut out. Myerson is less interested in the crime than in its impact on the narrator, Lennie's best friend Tess, and on their tranquil little community. Although some have succeeded in doing so, it is difficult to write a satisfying novel that begins with a murder and never unravels the mystery. Readers like to know whodunnit, especially when someone's heart has been ripped out.
Lennie's death dismantles Tess's life. Her relationship with her husband, Mick, falls apart, while she fends off protestations of love from Lennie's husband, Alex, and tends to her four children. On top of that, she falls in love with Ted Lacey, a "family liaison" officer whom the police have assigned to watch over Alex. Everything comes to a head on the night of Lennie's funeral, when Tess succumbs to Lacey in her beach hut; on her return home, she discovers that her daughter Rosa is missing.
By this time, the supernatural has crept into the book like a clammy sea fog. Children claim to see Lennie's ghost; Tess has a kind of sixth sense; and in a motif that seems lifted from a blockbuster horror film, Rosa's eerie drawings seem to prefigure her gloomy fate. The ghosts and premonitions are disappointing because Myerson's chief strength is the way she conjures up the horror of death by juxtaposing it with the banality of everyday life. Tragedy unfolds amid a litter of Kleenex and dried-up Biros. Lying next to Lennie's mangled and half-undressed corpse is "her sanitary pad, with its modest brown smear of blood". In the midst of panicking over Rosa's disappearance, Tess notes that her baby's nappy contains "the first poo made of formula milk".
The town is surrounded by haunted marshes and a hungry sea; the graveyard, significantly, is next to the playground. Life is at once fragile and unstoppable: the book is full of clamouring children who want snacks and ask awkward questions about death and who smell of toothpaste.
But the children seem more real than their shadowy parents. We find out very little about Tess and the three chief male characters, or why they behave as they do. When Tess falls out of love with Mick, her motivation is cloudy. Knowing little about the couple or their relationship, we must simply assume that Tess is unsatisfied for the age-old reason: passion and dirty nappies don't mix. Tess falls in love as perplexingly as she falls out of it. Her passion for Lacey seems to come from nowhere, announced so abruptly that it feels as if some pages have been skipped. The only possible assumption is that this is the kind of love that springs from shared crisis, but Tess stresses: "This isn't shock or delayed grief."
Myerson's characters are faceless, often literally so (it is rare that we get to find out what anyone looks like). She omits speech marks, which contributes to the general blurred effect, as if her characters are not quite distinct enough to be marked off from the surrounding prose. The novel is set in a world that is convincing, but the characters who inhabit it are not. As a result, it is hard to care very much whether anything might, or might not, happen.