Harvill Secker (www.penguin.co.uk)
Libby has decided on a well-deserved holiday and finds herself, with her three-year-old son Ethan, relaxing by the many pools of a resort complex on Florida’s gulf coast. When she befriends a married couple, one of whom takes an immediate shine to the precocious Ethan, Libby starts to relax and enjoy herself…until Ethan steps into an elevator alone one night and vanishes into thin air. As first hotel security, and then the local police, investigate, it becomes clear that Libby knows more about her son’s disappearance than she is letting on, and it seems she knows the woman who has taken him; a woman who looks remarkably like Libby herself.
Haylen Beck – alter-ego of Northern Ireland’s Stuart Neville, for those who have been living under a rock – follows his first novel, Here and Gone, with another excellent psychological thriller that plays on a fundamental fear that plagues every single parent the world over: the disappearance, however brief, and however innocent, of a child, and the sense of utter helplessness that comes with it.
In Libby we meet a single mother who loves her three-year-old son and would do anything for him. And why not? Ethan is the result of a long and arduous journey filled with failure and recrimination. When Ethan finally came along, Libby’s husband walked away, unable to cope with the new addition to the family, so it’s unsurprising that Libby might be a little over-protective, unwilling – or unable – to let her son out of her sight for even the briefest of moments. When she meets Charles and Gerry and discovers that it is possible to relax and enjoy herself, we find ourselves rejoicing along with her, and vicariously enjoying this unexpected benefit of her vacation.
Ethan’s disappearance, then, comes as something of a hammer blow and we’re right there with Libby, living the nightmare as vicariously as we did the good times, each passing moment without her child a hellish eternity both for Libby and for parents foolish enough to fall into Beck’s clever trap. But there’s something off, something Libby is holding back from the people who can help her to find her son, and we suddenly become wary of this woman about whom, we suddenly realise, we know next to nothing. This is not how a normal person reacts, not the “do anything” we would expect from a mother who obviously loves her child so much.
But all is not as it seems, and as Beck takes us back in time and introduces us to a younger Libby, and to the young woman who has abducted her son, we discover that they have more in common than we could ever have guessed. The tone of the novel suddenly shifts, and we find ourselves glued to the page as Beck slowly but surely reveals the secret of Ethan’s origin. And just when we think we have everything sorted out in our own minds, we find the carpet pulled from under our feet, the secret of Libby’s reticence suddenly revealed in an act of prestidigitation that will leave the reader speechless, clamouring to come to terms with Beck’s ruthless nature, and his ability to so easily manipulate our feelings.
While I much prefer the novels Stuart Neville has written under his own name, the Haylen Beck books are definitely well worth a read. Aimed at a much more commercial market than his Northern Ireland based offerings, Beck’s novels are psychological thrillers with a dark heart. While Here and Gone was good, Lost You is on a whole new level, the work of an author slowly settling into his second skin and experimenting with a well-defined genre to see how far he can push the boundaries. Aside from anything else, this is a masterclass in the art of the twist, and one of the tightest, most gripping thrillers I’ve come across this year.
Dark and engaging, Lost You forces us to consider the worst, then ups the ante by showing us that we really don’t understand the concept of “worst” at all. An excellent novel by one of Ireland’s finest, Lost You is the work of an author who is as comfortable writing commercial American thriller fiction as he is examining the legacy of bigotry and hatred that still defines much of modern Northern Ireland. Haylen Beck is one to watch, and Lost You is an excellent place to start for anyone who hasn’t yet discovered him. It’s a book that keeps a tight grip from the start to the nail-biting conclusion and should definitely be on your “must read” list.