‘They say Mandy is missing, but I think of it as hiding.’
Watch Me Disappear at times reads like a darker literary take on the ‘I love…’ TV format, peppered as it is with the 1970s trivia of spangles, twister and such like. The juxtaposition with child abuse, child abduction, dodgy adults and a simmering family crisis, is particularly striking. It is also a ‘coming of age’ piece about growing up, about the slightly disturbing games young girls play (or used to play), and their awkward encounters with older boys. In the current climate of pervasive fear and anxiety that surrounds discussion about children, their safety, and ‘well-being’, we perhaps have more difficulty separating the two (child abuse and the normal experiences of growing up) thus adding to the ambiguity and the reader’s uneasiness.
The stark descriptions of the landscape of Ely, Cambridgeshire where the novel is set, an island until the Fens were drained in the 1600s, are particularly evocative, portraying an overwhelming sense of brooding discontent, hidden secrets and impending revelation. Ely cathedral, we are told, is ‘the only solid thing in a landscape made of mist and water, smoke and mirrors’. Tina’s dad likens it to a ship, but now it is ‘tipping’, sinking like everything else, he says. Her mum used to describe her dad’s tempers as a ‘Fen Blow’. Mum hates the landscape for its exposed flatness, for what it might reveal. When the real Fen blows out of season she thinks it a ‘freak of nature’, a ‘terrible sign’ that things are ‘not right’. The unnatural goings on are portended in the surroundings.
The novel is dripping in metaphors, not least about water, its power, its pressure. On hearing a particularly shocking revelation, Tina tells us: ‘My ears explode. A whoosh as the pressure inside my head bursts like a balloon’. You can’t help but anticipate a watery end for her ‘missing’ friend, Mandy. You find yourself waiting for the surface of the Fens to be breached by the water beneath, for nature to reassert itself, bursting that ‘fine black skin capping the centuries of water, the secrets’. But this releasing and revealing is not all for the good. ‘Now it’s unspooling right in front of me and it’s too late to rewind’ she says. It’s being dredged up with the water but the evidence, like the cathedral, is slowly sinking from view.
Tina has a kind of epilepsy causing flashbacks and hallucinations. She consequently has quite an imagination. Though this leads us to doubt her accounts and revisitings, the reader is nevertheless encouraged to share her suspicions about her dad. He is we learn ‘a bit funny’ and has a ‘thing about girls’, euphemisms that once served their purpose well, I think. People knew each other more or less, particularly in communities like Ely, and consequently knew who and what they were talking about. They had shared points of reference against which to judge deviations. Though this could of course bring on Salem tendencies, so too does our own more individuated and anonymous culture of suspicion and vetting.
But there seems to be a turning point. The Moors murders (and to a lesser extent, the early prowlings of the Yorkshire Ripper) were a watershed in the public consciousness. In one of her flashbacks to the 1970s of her youth, Tina and her mum are watching a news report. ‘There are some terrible, wicked people in the world, Tina’, her mum tells her. The more measured tones of her Partridge Family equivalent – ‘Bad things happen but there are still plenty of good people in the world’ – seems a little less real. It just doesn’t cut it anymore. The slightest reference is made to the infamous tapes the Moors murderers made of one of their victims, but that’s all it takes for this reviewer. I couldn’t help thinking that everything changed just then. Those recordings were testament to the most awful inhumanities imaginable inflicted upon children. Or so we were told. Most of us (all of us?) have never heard them. They are ‘unimaginable’, but that’s what makes them so disturbing, because we try to imagine them despite ourselves. In that way, we are all a little like Tina perhaps.
Back to the present and the objects of our fear and loathing are less obvious. When her sister-in-law comments that ‘half of England’ is searching for the missing girls, Tina playfully, misanthropically, wonders if the other half might be ‘the abductors and paedophiles’. Thinking back, she and all her friends had their ‘dodgy encounter growing up’. The dirty old man. The flasher. It was accepted, a ‘giggle with your mates’. Only now does she wonder how these ‘encounters’ might have featured in the papers the next day if things had turned out different.
This is a theme that really chimed with this reviewer. The all-pervading uncertainty, of Tina’s failing to put her finger on the source of her anxieties about the past, about what remains just out of view. It is the ‘ill-defined, inchoate sense of something, something not right’ in her childhood. It is not a particular event but something ‘more nebulous, cumulative. It’s not specifics but feelings’, she says. This is a familiar feature of the endless child abuse panics that parents (and the rest of us) are subjected to. We are told abuse is everywhere, and yet actual known instances turn out to be rare. It is the mismatch, the space between the two that heightens our fears. Related to this are the variations on the theme of absence. Such as being lost, failing to find something or grasping for what is just out of reach. This idea of being ‘at sea’ (to use another watery metaphor) or losing your bearings in the featureless Fens is also, it seems to me, a property of a culture that has come to lose its way and, importantly in this discussion, its sense of perspective. Watch Me Disappear, for all its preoccupation with the past, is a book of its times.