Bonfire night in the park and everyone is having a good time. Ten year old twins, Conor and Erin are with their best friend Jayden (Jay) doing what children do – playing games and being gently cruel to each other. Conor and Jay play a trick, hiding from Erin out of sight of their parents. All that sounds perfectly normal until Erin suddenly disappears. It’s every family’s nightmare – a child abducted by a shadowy figure, the Still Man, lurking in the night mist on the edge of the playground.
This is the dramatic start of Alan Gibbons’ new novel for young adults, Forget Me Not. We have come to expect that Gibbons will challenge his readers, that he won’t patronise them and that he will hold them in the grip of a breathless story. On this occasion he takes all these characteristics to the very edge. Child abduction, imprisonment and abuse are not issues that are normally associated with younger readers but Gibbons isn’t afraid to say that these are issues that they can and should be allowed to understand and to engage with. These are also issues that would send many publishers running off in the opposite direction and so we should also acknowledge the role of the Circaidy Gregory Press in making this book available and guiding it on the back cover as suitable for readers of 14 and over.
The cases of young women like Natascha Kampusch, Sabine Dardenne, Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry, and Georgina “Gina” DeJesus abducted and imprisoned by their kidnappers have made headlines in the past but we know that such examples are thankfully rare. However, behind the headlines there are bigger issues that society needs to face – not the least of which is why it is that so many men believe that they have the right to control, abuse and terrorise women. This kind of abduction might be an extreme expression of this but violence and controlling behaviour is something faced by many women in their everyday lives.
Gibbons doesn’t shy away from these big issues but he is also keen to show the human impact of this situation. Following the initial abduction incident the book fragments into a series of parallel but intertwining narratives shared between Erin, Conor, Jay and the abuser himself, the Still Man, Michael Parker. We are shown how the daily horrors Erin has to deal with over the six years of her incarceration are only one aspect of this hell on Earth because Gibbons also wants us to understand how destructive this incident is to everyone close to Erin. Conor and Jay are wracked with guilt over the initial incident where they hid from the young girl and made her vulnerable, her mother and father live through their own private torment and their marriage is destroyed. Questions are also raised about the way institutions like the police are able to respond to the despair that is caused by someone like Parker.
Interestingly though, Gibbons refuses to reduce the abductor himself to a simple cipher of evil. As twisted and contorted as Parker’s psychology is, Gibbons forces us to try and see through his eyes – to try and understand what has created this man. What is it that makes a man want to keep women in a constant state of girlhood and to see their imprisonment as a blessing? How is it possible for Parker to cast himself as a god-like saviour of the girls he snatches from their families?
I say girls in the plural because we discover that Erin isn’t the first victim. Her companion for most of her six years imprisonment is the caring and supportive Helen who Parker took a couple of years before and it is Helen who teaches Erin how to survive. Growing up is the biggest threat the girls face and this in itself becomes a constant lurking terror – when will Parker lose interest in them as they transform from young girls into women. When and how will they be replaced in the basement prison that has become their home?
Outside in the ‘real’ world Conor and Jay have their own tensions. Conor is so paralysed with guilt and with living with a mother who is falling apart that he finds it hard to retain a belief in Erin’s survival – after all everyone is now thinking of this as a ‘cold case’. Jay, always close to Erin, simply won’t give up and he is driven, convinced she’s out there waiting to be found. The friendship of the two 16 year olds is stretched to breaking point but they manage to hold it together long enough to mount their own investigation when they despair of the role the police are playing.
Gibbons has not only produced a tense, claustrophobic story of real life horror but a page turning thriller too. Will the boys eventually find Erin and will Erin’s survival skills be good enough to help her until she is found? We simply have to find out.
Compelling and compassionately written, this is a book with a huge heart and a massive desire to understand and explore very difficult issues. I do think, however, that the desire to crush so much complex material into what is quite a short read – not much more than 150 pages – creates some difficulties. I applaud the desire to explore the psychology of the abductor from his point of view but ultimately I think he never quite stops being two dimensional – especially given the way in which Erin and Helen are crafted as very real and rounded individuals. Maybe, understandably enough, Gibbons struggles to get into the mind of an abuser like this but I’m simply not convinced by the passing allusions to his own abusive childhood as a motivation for his own behaviour. I would also have liked a bit more of the back story to the disintegration of the parents’ marriage because it’s important for us to understand how the tentacles of these malign acts stretch deep and wide.
I’m not sure where Gibbons gets his drive and energy from – every new book brings an original and powerful contribution to a wider public debate without ever forgetting the need to give his readers a tremendous story to keep them riveted. Whatever’s coming next?
(This review was first published on www.letterpressproject.co.uk in October 2016)