Fictional stories of child abductions have become more prevalent in books in the last few years, as has the device of writing from children’s perspectives in these novels (such as in ‘Room’) or in other ‘current topics’ (I am thinking of ‘Pigeon English’ which I have just started) its almost become it’s own genre in a way. Well, I think so. With this in mind I went into reading ‘Forgetting Zoe’ by Ray Robinson with a mixture of ‘oh here we go again’ along with ‘go on, impress me, do something different’.
On Friday October the 8th 1999 a ten year old girl by the name of Zoe Neilsen suddenly vanishes on the way to school. This shocks the inhabitants of the small island, just off Newfoundland, is immense, it’s a place where people leave their doors unlocked and trust their neighbours. The people it doesn’t come as a shock to are the readers of this book, as for 50 pages leading up to this we have been given an insight into the twisted and disturbing childhood of Thurman Hayes, the man who we soon to discover, with an all too familiar feeling of history repeating itself, has abducted her. Zoe has become one of those children who ‘disappear at a mile a minute’ in fact Zoe is now in a bunker 4000 miles from home.
“Zoe knew that she was below ground and no one would hear her but she still screamed for help, her knuckles a scabby pulp from punching walls. The machine breathed into the room, its constant whine and rattling niggling her. This was the first week in captivity, an animal in a cage waiting to be fed and watered, for the man to reappear. Or were there more than one?”
I found the way Robinson put us first in the mind of Thurman Hayes was a particularly clever move, it throws the reader off as they watch the victim of child abuse become the abuser. (Unless of course you read the blurb, I hadn’t thankfully, which gives away practically the whole storyline. Publishers, why do you do this?) The fact you feel for him when he lives with such a tyrant as one parent, and complete denial ridden doormat of another, makes the sudden change throw you out of step. Robinson has pulled the rug from under your feet.
“Father beating him because he wet the bed into his teens. It made the wetting worse, his lisp worse. Father’s looming presence.”
The other perspective in the novel is that of Ingrid, Zoe’s mother. This is written utterly, and heartbreakingly, beautifully. Ingrid is a single mother who takes her daughter for granted, until that fateful day. From the moment that the loss of her daughter becomes a reality, as first there is denial, we watch a women unravel as her world crumbles. The past comes to haunt her, the press turn against her (as the parents always become suspects) from sympathy to suspicion and we watch from the sidelines. It’s incredibly well done, you will occasionally dislike Ingrid but you will always empathise with her. In fact it’s the flaws in all the characters that make them so real.
One of the most effective things about Ray Robinson’s prose is that he puts you in the mindset of Zoe, her mother and her captor without ever writing them in first person. There’s almost a sense of him wanting you to feel what they are going through, but at the same time making the reader feel safe – yet still shocked and disturbed – without ever making it too real. I am probably not explaining that very well, you read the book experiencing it yet at a level which doesn’t sicken you; you’re concerned, shocked and occasionally horrified by the grimness of the story but also slightly at a distance. There is also the fact that Zoe, as a character, is never patronised which could be so easy in a book like this when you give voice to a ten year old.
‘Forgetting Zoe’ is very different from the stories of its ilk which I have read in the last couple of years. It’s darker and grittier, and yet strangely never gets bogged down in this despite how much awful stuff happens over the pages to both Zoe and those affected by her sudden and random vanishing. What Robinson does, which I think is all the more uncomfortable and poignant, with his third novel is give voice not just to the captured, but also to the captor and the captives relations.
Big thanks to ‘Fiction Uncovered’ for highlighting this book. It’s not an ‘easy-read’ by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s an incredible one, and one I will probably be babbling on about to anyone and everyone who will give a disturbing read a chance. I feel like I have been missing a trick missing Ray Robinson’s writing until now, I may have to read some more of his work.