The Man Who Disappeared, By Clare Morrall

The suspenseful story of a husband who wasn't there
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The Independent Culture

Clare Morrall's protagonists always harbour some intriguing psychological tic. In her Booker-shortlisted debut, Astonishing Splashes of Colour, it was synaesthesia; after that came post-traumatic stress and Asperger's syndrome. In each case, her achievement has been to make the reader experience the world through these oblique filters. Felix Kendall, her protean new hero, continues the trend. Here, the drawback is a chameleon personality born of infant trauma: aged five, he witnessed the murder of his parents in a robbery. By combining Felix's narrative with that of Kate, his wife of 27 years, Morrall introduces an ancient, yet fascinating, chestnut: how well can we ever truly know another person?

Down at the core, beneath its several layers, The Man Who Disappeared is a well-crafted suspense story: What makes a successful accountant, devoted husband and loving dad turn to white-collar crime, and what happens after he vanishes? Morrall digs beneath the surface to mine psychological nuggets, some of them gold.

Kate is returning from a study trip in Canada when she learns that Felix has disappeared, wanted for money-laundering. With the media camped out before their desirable residence in Budleigh on the Devon coast, humiliation and financial ruin ensue. As the months roll by with no news, the Randalls are forced to remake their lives. The house is given up for a cheap rented flat, and the cotton-wool wrapping of nine-year-old Rory's private school gives way to the cheerful rough and tumble of a state primary. (It suits him better.) Twelve-year-old Millie stays on at her school with a bursary, though her former friends evade her. Meanwhile, Kate mingles lollipop ladying and office cleaning with finishing her MA.

Brooding over her marriage is naturally the order of the day. Odd memories are harshly illuminated: Felix's relish at spying through other families' windows; his anxiety to acquire the "right" house and the "right" décor. He idealised family life, she's always understood, because he lost his own, but now it seems sinister. Maybe he married her not for herself but because she fitted his image of a wife: the headmaster's dutiful daughter at the boarding school paid for by his bluestocking maiden aunts. And there's so much Felix never revealed, ducking questions about his parents and his eccentric guardians. She concludes now that he always lived for the present, and to please those around him, like "a model of an Action Man, designed to bend and adapt to all circumstances". She imagines, not incorrectly, that he colluded in white-collar crime because he couldn't say "no" to the co-accused.

In interconnecting scenes, we follow Felix's story and evaluate Kate's evidence. The options for living clandestinely in modern Britain are limited; however, Felix finds an unofficial sub-let, then a cash-in-hand job in a corner shop, and we come to appreciate what Kate means – how easily he adapts to his surroundings. But a great psychological gap is never entirely explained. How does Felix distance himself from his family for so many months before he cracks?

Curiously, Kate, so irritatingly passive and self-controlled at the outset, turns out to be the better character; we like her more as she becomes tougher and angrier. When, finally, he seeks her out, she deals with him on her own terms. He, by contrast, seems faded; he haunts the family, tries desperately to woo them back. The upbeat ending – however difficult to resist – doesn't quite suit the wider emotional context. You're left with the troubling sense that though Felix has reappeared physically, as a person he remains diminished. In more than one sense, The Man Who Disappeared is a space waiting to be filled.

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