The Man Who Disappeared, By Clare Morrall

Domestic drama that hits home
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Clare Morrall could be accused as a novelist in search of a syndrome. In her Booker-shortlisted debut, Astonishing Splashes of Colour, her heroine suffered from synaesthesia; then came novels about reactive depression and Asperger’s. Here, she offers a yet more unique creation in the introspective world of modern fiction: a woman entirely happy with her lot.

Kate Kendall, mother of three, lives in a wisteria-clad house in seaside Budleigh Salterton. Husband Felix is an accountant, she’s studying for a part-time MA in art history. Their younger children, Rory and Millie, attend private schools, while Lawrence is at university. As a couple, they still hold hands on the beach and remember anniversaries.

Wised-up readers know that such domestic smuggery doesn’t always auger well. Travelling home from a study trip in Canada, Kate learns that Felix has gone missing, wanted on charges of money laundering and international fraud. It’s a revelation that shakes the foundations of Kate’s comfortable life, forcing her to reassess how well she knows the man she has slept beside for 27 years.

This is hardly original material, but Morrall’s unshowy work reveals greater truths. Here, the question is not how, or if, Felix will be found, but what makes him tick. We’re led to believe that a childhood trauma might provide the key to Felix’s rogue behaviour. Reality proves more complicated still.

At times, Morrall seems undecided whether she’s crafting a thriller or sensitive family drama. When Kate is forced to move to a council flat, the children’s reaction to their change in circumstance is well observed. For Kate, now employed as a lollipop lady, it takes longer to divest the badges of middle-classdom. There’s a humourless aspect to her character that ultimately makes her journey less involving than it might be.

Refreshingly, this turns out not |to be novel about a midlife flight, but the story of a man who never felt he deserved to stay. Once Kate takes off her rose-tinted spectacles, provincial Budleigh suddenly becomes bathed in a much more interesting light.