Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell
She was fifteen, her mother’s golden girl. She had her whole life ahead of her. And then, in the blink of an eye, Ellie was gone. Ten years on, Laurel has never given up hope of finding Ellie. And then she meets a charming and charismatic stranger who sweeps her off her feet. But what really takes her breath away is when she meets his nine-year-old daughter. Because his daughter is the image of Ellie. Now all those unanswered questions that have haunted Laurel come flooding back. What really happened to Ellie? And who still has secrets to hide?
The account of Laurel’s increasing atavistic distaste for Floyd is what lifts this book from a powerful family drama to a chilling psychological thriller.
Jewell describes the threads which bind Ellie’s inexorable, horrible fate; there’s the role of her creepy former maths tutor, Noelle and Floyd’s own entanglement and cynical plans for the future. It’s all very messy, and very dark.
Noelle, by the way, is a real piece of work. Becoming ever more bitter and unfulfilled, she turns into a devil who stalks Ellie. She’s jealous of the girl’s golden beauty, intelligence, and bright spirit. When Noelle traps Ellie in her own unspeakable underworld, the increasingly deranged teacher reveals to us, the reader, her chilling motivation. The voice of a psychotic woman freezes the blood and is utterly repulsive.
Jewell describes this as her darkest novel yet, and it is a real departure from her usual vivid family dramas. As for poor Laurel, she must face (for the second time) the fate that befell her beloved youngest daughter. But Jewell manages to construct an ending to the novel which contains both redemption and peace. It’s a terrific read.
Laurel Mack is an attractive woman of about fifty. But her life stopped ten years before this story begins. Ellie, her fifteen-year-old daughter, disappears one day on her way to the local library to revise for her GCSEs.
The police think she’s a runaway, unbalanced because of exam stress. Her mother instinctively knows that’s not true, but the child is never found. Ellie has vanished without a trace – and as a result, Laurel’s marriage breaks up and her two other grown-up children become very distant with her. After ten years the police DO find Ellie. But what they discover is only the poor girl’s sad remains and her old backpack.
Paradoxically, the news that Ellie really is dead comes as a release to her mother. Laurel feels she can at last move on, and when she meets an attractive man in a café, she starts dating him.
The man – Floyd – seems perfect. Laurel is very smitten, and when she meets his nine-year-old daughter, Poppy, she is especially enchanted because of the precocious child’s similarity to Ellie at the same age.
From this point the plot becomes dense and disturbing. After describing Laurel’s new sense of freedom and enjoyment at rediscovering sex, the prose begins to hint at murky depths and strange coincidences. As Laurel becomes ever more involved with Floyd, she starts to feel that he’s not the man he at first seemed, and she withdraws from him. Jewell writes powerfully about Laurel’s subconscious detachment from Floyd; she begins to find him almost repellant.
Read an Extract of Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell
Between the day in May 2005 that Ellie had failed to come home and exactly two minutes ago there had been not one substantial lead regarding her disappearance. Not one.
The last sighting of Ellie had been caught on CCTV on Stroud Green Road at ten forty- three, showing her stopping briefly to check her reflection in a car window (for a while there’d been a theory that she had stopped to look at someone in the car, or to say something to the driver, but they’d traced the car’s owner and proved that he’d been on holiday at the time of Ellie’s disappearance and that his car had been parked there for the duration). And that was that. Her recorded journey had ended there.
They’d done a house- to- house search of the immediate vicinity, brought in known paedophiles for questioning, taken CCTV footage from each and every shopkeeper on Stroud Green Road, wheeled out Laurel and Paul to be filmed for a television appeal that had been seen by roughly eight million people, but nothing had ever taken them further than that last sighting of Ellie looking at her reflection at ten forty- three.
The fact that Ellie had been wearing a black T-shirt and jeans had been a problem for the police. The fact that her lovely gold-streaked hair had been pulled back into a scruffy ponytail. The fact that her rucksack was navy blue. That her trainers were bog-standard supermarket trainers in white. It was almost as though she’d deliberately made herself invisible.
Ellie’s bedroom had been expertly rifled through for four hours by two DIs with their shirtsleeves rolled up. Ellie, it seemed, had taken nothing out of the ordinary. It was possible she might have taken underwear but there was no way for Laurel to know if there was anything missing from her drawers. It was possible she might have taken a change of clothing, but Ellie, like most fifteen-year-old girls, had way too many clothes, far too many for Lauren to keep an inventory. But her piggy bank still contained the few tightly folded ten- pound notes she forced into it after every birthday. Her toothbrush was still in the bathroom, her deodorant too. Ellie had never been on a sleepover without her toothbrush and deodorant. After two years, they’d downgraded the search. Laurel knew what they thought; they thought Ellie was a runaway.
Ellie’s disappearance had shown her that he wasn’t big enough, he wasn’t strong enough – he wasn’t insane enough
How they could have thought that Ellie was a runaway when there was no CCTV footage of her at any train station, at any bus stop, walking down any road anywhere apart from the one from which she’d disappeared? The downgrade of the search was devastating.
Even more devastating was Paul’s response to this pronouncement.
‘It’s a sort of closure, I guess.’
There, right there – the final nail in the dry box of bones of their marriage.
The children meanwhile were shuffling along, like trains on a track, keeping to schedule. Hanna took her A levels. Jake graduated from university in the West Country where he’d been studying to be a chartered surveyor. And Paul was busy asking for promotions at work, buying himself new suits, talking about upgrading the car, showing her hotels and resorts on the internet that had special deals that summer. Paul was not a bad man. Paul was a good man. She had married a good man, just as she’d always planned to do. But the way he’d dealt with the violent hole ripped into their lives by Ellie’s disappearance had shown her that he wasn’t big enough, he wasn’t strong enough – he wasn’t insane enough.
It changed nothing.
The disappointment she felt in him was such a tiny part of everything else she’d been feeling that she barely registered it. When he moved out a year later it was nothing, a small blip in her existence. Looking back on it now, she could remember very little about it. All she could remember from that time was the raw need to keep the search going.
‘Can we not just do one more house- to- house?’ she’d pleaded with the police. ‘It’s been a year since we did one. That’s long enough, surely, to turn up something we didn’t find before?’
The detective had smiled. ‘We have talked about it,’ she said. ‘We decided that it was not a good use of resources. Not at this time. Maybe in a year or so. Maybe.’
But then suddenly this January, out of the blue, the police had called and said that Crimewatch wanted to do a ten- year anniversary appeal. Another reconstruction. It was broadcast on 26 May. It brought no fresh evidence. No new sightings.
It changed nothing.
Book Club Questions for Then She Was Gone
1. Then She Was Gone is first and foremost a mystery. But a lot of questions are answered quite early on in the book. How soon did you guess what really happened to Ellie, and if you did, did it affect your enjoyment of the book?
2. It is also a story about a mother’s love for her missing daughter. Did you think Lisa’s portrayal of Laurel and her journey was realistic and/or moving? Could you relate to the way she dealt with her grief, or did you find it alienating?
3. The novel has four narrators, one of whom is Noelle. How did you feel about hearing Noelle’s voice so late in the story, and did her account expand your understanding of what might drive someone to commit such an unthinkable crime?
4. What did you think of the ending?