Family lies at the heart of Lisa Jewell’s novels and despite turning her hand to crime, her fifteenth book and, according to Jewell herself, “darkest to date”, is no different. She explained that she was drawn to the theme of missing children “because the moment you become a parent you start building up a roster of ‘worst nightmare’ scenarios and your imagination runs wild thinking of awful things that might happen to your children while they’re away from you. The thought of someone hurting your child, of your child being somewhere where they are scared or in pain and helpless and you’re not there to hold them in your arms is just unbearable. There’s something reassuring about your worst nightmare being all wrapped up in a neat fictionalised package and not happening in real life.”
Destroyed by tragedy, we are introduced to Laurel now divorced from husband Paul and barely maintaining a relationship with her remaining two grown-up children. She goes to work; goes swimming once a week; pretends to care about the plants in her two bed apartment; but Laurel has essentially put her life on hold until she discovers what happened to Ellie.
Exploring the aftermath of a tragedy is arguably more challenging than describing the build-up to or the event itself and it’s a challenge which Lisa Jewell tackles head-on. She explains how her perceptive portrayal of grief within a family setting came to her organically: “I hadn’t sat down beforehand and given hours of in depth thought to how they might all be feeling and how Ellie’s disappearance might have affected them all, I just felt it as I wrote it and wrote it as I felt it; the strained relationship between Laurel and Hanna in particular was something I could never have planned to happen. If I put myself in Laurel’s shoes, I would absolutely assume that the disappearance of one of my own daughters would only strengthen the relationship I had with my remaining daughter. But life isn’t always neat and manageable and lots of fairly sound marriages crumble under the stress of loss and trauma.”
Anyone familiar with Lisa Jewell’s previous work will know that her characters are where her strengths lie. Her interest in characters and families play an important role in not only her work but her life too: “it influences the books I read, the questions I ask people when we’re together, the way I view the world.” Although her most recent work has become much darker, it’s still her characters that have us hooked to read chapter after chapter. Laurel very quickly becomes someone that the reader cares very deeply about, as she shares her despair over losing Ellie but also shows an inner strength that we admire. On learning the process behind Lisa Jewell’s character development, it soon becomes apparent why they each have so many layers: “I get to know them as I write them. I start off with somewhere around 5 to 50% of the character already alive and kicking in my head and the rest shows up like a photo in a tray of developing fluid as the story unfolds.”
Fairly new to crime writing and fast establishing herself within the genre, Lisa Jewell honestly shares why she decided to omit police procedure; “I’m too lazy to research police procedure! And also, I think, it’s a confidence thing. I feel, in a way, that police procedure is done so well by so many other writers and that you have someone brilliant like Clare Mackintosh who used to be a police detective and there’s a bit of me that thinks I have no right to enter that territory, that I would just make a terrible mess of it.”
Where Then She Was Gone might lack in police procedure, it makes up for in psychological tension and suspense. Some of the most chilling chapters are written from the perspective of the villain, whose mindset, perhaps surprisingly, she found easy to get into. Without giving any spoilers away, she comments that “they were by far the easiest chapters to write. And again, I have my editor to thank for this. She read the MS at the halfway point and said that she’d love to find out more about them because as it stood she couldn’t work out what on earth their motivation might be…So I jumped straight into their persona and gave them this chilling voice and this ambiguous character”.
It may be a cliché but Then She Was Gone has an ending you won’t see coming – ask Lisa Jewell, she didn’t even anticipate it herself. After writing the final scene, she felt like something was seriously amiss; “I’d expected to feel joy and euphoria, I’d thought it would make me cry, but instead I felt nothing.” One long night spent brainstorming with her editor later, they pinpointed the thing that would bring it all together, “and it was quite radial”.
As the finished novel was so drastically different from the original draft, Lisa Jewell sent out Then She Was Gone “into the world on a wing and a prayer”. For that reason, she wasn’t expecting the high praise it received and was blown away by readers’ reviews “talking about crying, about being haunted by it long after reading it, about having their whole lives put on hold for the duration of the time it took them to read it”. Lisa Jewell might be surprised by the positive reaction to Then She Was Gone, but we certainly aren’t and we’re pretty sure you won’t be either.