A novelist in search of a syndrome, Clare Morrall seems irresistibly drawn to characters with cognitive disorders. Her Man Booker-short listed debut Astonishing Splashes of Colour featured a heroine who suffered from synaesthesia, while subsequent novels explored Asperger's and depression. In The Man Who Disappeared, her fourth novel, she examines a yet more idiosyncratic condition - a middle-aged woman seemingly entirely happy with her lot.
Kate Kendall lives in a pretty wisteria-clad house in seaside Budleigh Salterton. Life is a pleasant round of familial duties revolving around her accountant husband, Felix, and their three privately-educated children. As a couple they still hold hands on the beach and remember anniversaries – their biggest row to date has been a tiff over wallpaper choices for the study. But as wised-up readers will know, such domestic smuggery can't possibly auger well. One day, while travelling home from a trip in Canada, Kate is taken aside by airport security to be informed that her husband has gone missing, wanted on charges of money laundering and fraud. It's a revelation that shakes her to the core, forcing her to reassess her last 27 years of married life.
Stories about marital betrayal can follow any number of scenarios, but here Morrall is less interested in if or when Felix will come back, than getting to the root of what makes him tick. Replaying scenes from her marriage, Kate starts to rake over her relationship, trying to understand what happened between herself and the man she thought she knew.
When Felix fails to return home, and the joint bank account is finally emptied, Kate is forced to sell up the family home and move to a nearby council flat. The childrens' reaction to their changed circumstance is well observed. Rory, aged nine, previously a nervy boy in the habit of talking to aliens, starts to thrive at his new local school; while older sister Millie, already embarking on her own romantic misadventures, retreats further into her own private teenage world. For Kate, now employed as a lollipop lady, it takes longer to divest the badges of middleclassdom.
Although Morrall tries hard with the jargon of international crime, Felix's Interpol-by-the-sea interlude never sits comfortably with the rest of the novel. At times the author seems unsure whether she's writing a psychological thriller or a family drama. Either way, Felix's disappearance provides a useful way to examine how notions of respectability impact on matters of the heart. Refresingly, Morrall's novel doesn't turn out to be a case of adulterous mid-life flight, but the story of a man who never felt he deserved to stay.
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