Jill Dawson's 'Watch Me Disappear' takes as its backdrop the Cambridgeshire Fens around the time of the Soham murders, dropping references in all but name. That the narrator, Tina Humber, should be there is purely coincidental, as she's attending her brother's wedding. The current brouhaha does have an effect however, as it brings to mind the memory of an old school friend, Mandy Baker, who went missing thirty years before, never to be found.
The novel follows Tina's account of events back then and while she does think regularly of Mandy, it's not about the missing girl so much as it is about the development of her own sexuality, whether it be from browsing some porno mags, reading smut in the 'News Of The World', or encounters with her first boyfriend. Events that occur between the ages of nine and fourteen, within the range mentioned by Nabokov in the quote, from 'Lolita', regarding nymphets that prefaces the novel. As the story - well, backstory - develops Tina comes to unearth memories (or perhaps they are just delusions caused by mild epilepsy) about the past that forces her to confront the past, something that may just be closer to home than ever thought possible.
Throughout the novel Dawson looks at the subjects of girls and sexuality, covering many bases. Boys. Sex. The paedophile threat. While at the same time there's the flagrant way in which children, innocent of their appeal, are becoming highly sexualised at younger and younger ages such as one girl mentioned with the word 'sexy' plastered across the seat of her jeans. That and the feeling of needing to live up to the image of women presented, exclusively it seems, in boys' magazines.
The prose in 'Watch Me Disappear' is tight, the content engaging. And none more so than when Tina describes an image, detail by detail, adding character to an absent friend:
"Mandy is splashing, then dragging herself out by her arms, shuffling on her bottom along the sun-heated concrete lining the pool and reaching for the Tupperware bowl of warm strawberries, strawberries that taste of plastic; dipping them in the bowl of stiff cream. Her flat fringe, wet against her forehead. Her foot, fine bones at the arch, the colour of a perfectly baked cake, golden, rising, her toes like ten bright birthday candles, dipping small circles, little yellow light flames, in the water. Her stubborn bottom lip, what my mum called her pet lip, peachier, fatter than mine.
Clever Mandy Baker, with her clever tongue, licking the cream from her very last summer."
The evocation of the seventies feels successful. Whether it be mentions of Spangles, 'The Benny Hill Show', or John Noakes on 'Blue Peter', all nostalgic references are achieved without straining, the way I felt David Mitchell did for the eighties in 'Black Swan Green'. And the recollection of a childhood, from an adult perspective put me in mind of Hisham Matar's 'In The Country Of Men', although I found that extremely poor and clumsy read.
Another well done device that adds to the novel is Tina's career choice. She's a marine biologist specialising in seahorses. And while we don't see much of her at work there are a number of passages looking at the lives, habits, and very nature of these creatures, passages which blend in with the reminiscences and reinforce the ideas on show.
Despite the lack of here-and-now action within the novel, there's much still to be enjoyed. The characters are rendered well, all three dimensions intact, and the setting comes to life too. Having been introduced to 'Lolita' parallels prior to reading the novel, I was trying to be attentive throughout but know that plenty will have passed me by. If not most.
When it comes down to it, the lack of actual plot isn't a great loss, for the narrative is carried well by an efficient narrator who never once loses the thread of their story, which is one of sexual awakenings set around the need to confront the past. When I read Milan Kundera's 'Ignorance' I thought it was amazing to think how our individual memories colour our version of events and 'Watch Me Disappear' is no different in that respect. It's a great read. But that's just how I remember it.