There can be very few parents who have not at some point ‘lost’ their child, for a few moments, minutes, or dreadful, lingering hours. It happens, despite our best intentions. (I speak as someone who once ‘lost’ one of our boys in Death Valley, California, in blistering temperatures well into the mid 40s c. We accidentally left him behind at an unmanned gas station and only realised 45 minutes later. But at least he was a teenager and stayed calm. Mind you, he didn’t speak to us for days afterwards).
But losing a tiny child is a whole different scenario. They’re so helpless and vulnerable. Now You See Her focuses relentlessly on the practical, psychological and emotional disaster that unfolds when Charlotte Reynolds loses four-year-old Alice at a school fete. And Alice isn’t even her child – Charlotte is looking after the little girl for the day while the mother, her best friend Harriet, attends a college course.
Which is worse? Losing your own child, or someone else’s? That’s one of the questions author Heidi Perks grapples with in this intense (almost too intense to bear, sometimes) account of an abrupt, unlooked-for catastrophe. How does Charlotte tell Harriet that her beloved child has vanished into thin air? What words can she find to explain such a terrible oversight? As the hours and then days pass with no sign of the four-year-old, both women’s pain – so different, yet so alike – becomes almost too much for them (or us, frankly) to bear. I took this book to bed with me on consecutive nights along with a stiff whisky. I needed it to settle my jangled nerves before putting the light out.
Even though we know what’s going to happen – that Charlotte will lose her best friend’s daughter – the scene where Alice vanishes is still utterly heart-stopping. Charlotte allows her own older children to take the small child on a bouncy castle, the star attraction at the fete.
The excited posse rush to the ride’s entrance, at the rear of the inflatable and out of Charlotte’s sight. A minute or two later, her children re-appear at the exit – but there is no sign of Alice. Charlotte sends them back in to find her, but they return empty-handed.
Heidi Perks writes this scene grippingly. The creeping sense that something very, very bad has just happened. Charlotte’s desperate attempts to stay calm as the widening public search for Alice fails. The appeals for help over the fete’s p.a. system. And then, 20 minutes in to an unfolding nightmare, the irrevocable decision to call the police. Now it’s official. Alice is a missing child.
As the days pass without any sightings, Charlotte becomes a social pariah. It turns out she briefly checked her Iphone’s emails when the children went on Jungle Run, taking her eyes off the ride. Social media sites are brutal and she is relentlessly trolled as a despicable human being. Friends shun her and whisper behind their hands at the school gates. Meanwhile Harriet will not even speak to her. Communication is via police.
Alice’s father, Brian – an increasingly creepy figure – blames Charlotte totally for what has happened. But he has an agenda of his own, ‘gaslighting’ his distraught wife and trying to make her believe she is losing her mind. What’s his agenda?
The twist at the end of Now You See Her works well and neatly answers readers’ questions about what happened to Alice that sunny summer’s afternoon. But you won’t see it coming.