With four well received novels under his belt, and praise from the likes of Ian Rankin and Irvine Welsh, physicist turned-author Doug Johnstone returns with his latest offering Gone Again. A psychological thriller in two distinct halves, the reader is immediately engaged by his/her proximity to the protagonist’s emotions, and drawn further in by a plot that keeps you guessing until the very end. The book is an instant page-turner, and with only two hundred and fifty of them can easily be read in a single sitting.
In the current age of instant communication links through Facebook, email and mobile phones, to be actually unable to reach someone is an unusual occurrence, and one made more unsettling by its rarity. Yet this is the situation Mark Douglas finds himself in when he receives the call to say that his wife, Lauren, has not collected their son from school. As the hours turn into days and Mark struggles to carry on caring for Nathan as normal, more information is gradually revealed about the couple. Lauren is pregnant again; under the influence of post-natal depression, she has disappeared once before, leaving Mark holding the baby. We are treated to flashbacks of their lives before marriage and children, when they were wild and young, then to the moments of mingled joy and pain brought on by the birth of their son. Through free indirect discourse and tight focalisation on Mark as a character, raw emotion streams straight from the page; we too experience that “parental craziness…pride, worry, love, heartbreak and pain”, along with his barely contained frustration and panic over Lauren’s whereabouts. Daily episodes of parenting – the school run, Star Wars and the tooth fairy – are all infused with an underlying current of fear and grief. The struggle to continue with everyday life in the face of personal crisis, an entirely human situation, will make readers instantly connect with Mark and will even reduce some to tears. A change in style occurs in the second far more story-driven half of the novel. Johnstone uses standard thriller techniques (suspicion falling on the protagonist as he takes the investigation into his own hands) to again engage our emotions, although this time it is done in an entirely different way. This latter section of Johnstone’s novel builds up to a climax that wouldn’t look out of place in a Hollywood blockbuster, and seems slightly at odds with the book’s humble beginnings.
As someone who is fairly lukewarm towards thrillers in general, it is perhaps not surprising that I found the first half of Gone Again to be superior to the second. From the outset, the book does not feel like a thriller, rather a touching portrayal of grief, so it is disconcerting when events move out of the domestic setting and into the realm of burglaries, guns and chase scenes. At this point in the novel, Mark is no longer everyman, even with the novel’s continued use of free indirect discourse. Despite all this, Johnstone does combine these two seemingly disparate parts into one whole, creating a book that is easy to pick up and difficult to put down.