First of all – apologies to crimeworm readers; I’m running a pile of days late with this, due to having a nasty bug, which I gave to Mr C, and which he, then, kindly returned to me! But isn’t that what love’s all about? Sharing and caring, through the good and the bad? (Nobody mentioned tummy bugs to me, though!) Then we had to go down to Glasgow to meet Mr C’s new (somewhat early, but thankfully hale and hearty) nephew. Primarily, apologies to the blog organisers, for letting you down date-wise.
I’m a big fan of Cath Staincliffe (who isn’t??! I’ve always thought she’d be great to go for a beer with; possibly due to my entirely unscientific study, based on personal experience, that people from or who live in Manchester are “a good laugh” – again a totally unscientific term.) I enjoyed Blue Murder, and I recently read a Scott and Bailey novel of hers. I also have Letters To My Daughter’s Killer to read, but, for me, this’ll be the first novel of hers I’ll have read containing characters of her own creation. A big appeal, for me, in Cath’s writing, whether it be for TV or a novel, is the ordinariness of her characters – they’re all pretty average families, doing pretty average jobs. And that’s not to say they’re dull – they’re just people we can relate to.
At the beginning of Half The World Away we meet Lorelei, daughter of Jo and Tom, now split, with Jo now married to Nick. (Tom seems a bit of a flibbertigibbet – unable to stick to one occupation, or indeed girlfriend, for long.) Together Jo and Nick have two young sons, Finn, 7, and five-year-old Isaac. Lorelei is heading to the Far East – Thailand, initially – on a break with friends after completing a photography degree. However, her trip takes a detour when she decides to ditch the friends she left with and go to China with a new group, unknown to her family, and teach English. All seems to be going well – she’s found a flat, she’s in a relationship, she’s working, happy, and even suggesting staying for a whole year – when, suddenly, communications cease. As weeks pass, frustrated by the slowness of the Chinese police’s actions and the British consul, Jo and Tom decide to head out to Chengdu, where Lori had been living, and see if they can hurry the investigation long.
Interspersed with the actions of her family at home are entries from Lori’s blog, cataloguing her travels. This is an effective way for us to get to know the main character, despite her absence (although I must say she seems very level-headed for a student let loose in a foreign country – it seems particularly bad luck, then, that such a sensible girl who wouldn’t take any silly risks would be the one who disappears.)
Chengdu is one of these new, massive cities that have sprung up in China since the millennium, but which many of us have never even heard of (unless, like me, you enjoy watching BBC2 programmes featuring Robert Peston or Niall Ferguson about China’s economic boom!) There’s constant noise and building work going on. Before they leave they’re given a contact at a British-based charity, Missing Overseas, and they’re put onto someone within the British consulate, Peter Dunne, but when it comes to the Chinese police, it seems the officer in charge, Superintendent Yin, has his own way of doing things – namely, as little as he can get away with. Jo and Tom decide to mount their own campaign, and gather Lori’s friends together, get a pile of leaflets printed, and go out on the streets to see if anyone can help them. However, it seems the Chinese people have a similar attitude to Superintendent Yin – they only want to hear about crimes once they’re solved. The unsolved ones, I presume, are simply forgotten about. During their search, Jo and Tom are arrested, and their press conference (and best hope) cancelled by the Chinese police, who seem determined to control every aspect of the investigation. The problem IS, there doesn’t seem to be much of one.
At home, things aren’t going fantastically, either, with Isaac having a medical emergency, resulting in Jo’s loyalties being torn between her children. Nick, on the surface at least, appears to be coping fine, so she remains in Chengdu, continuing the search. By now the desperate parents have decided the best hope of finding Lori safe lies with them – two people, in a city of millions, the majority of whom speak a different language.
I’m not going to mention any more about the search, or what they discover. This is a book, though, that may chill the heart of any parent with a child planning a gap year. In fact, if you fall into this category, I’d suggest definitely avoiding this book! The ghosts of young people like Lucie Blackman (although of course it was Japan where she disappeared) stalk the pages. I thought the city of Chengdu was portrayed exactly as I’ve seen these new cities on TV: the constant construction noise; the exotic, beautiful and historical sites; the tea houses; the bizarre groups who participate in synchronized movements in public (dance? Tai Chi? I have no idea!) It’s easy to imagine Jo’s feeling of sheer powerlessness as her child has vanished, seemingly into thin air, in this colossal metropolis.
Although this book is, initially, about a crime, by the end of it I took it to be about something else: family, and it’s resilience – at least most of the time. The characters, particularly Jo, were people you were really gunning to succeed, despite the terrible odds against them. Despite the heart-rending subject matter, this is a fairly fast read, and towards the end you’ll find yourself turning the pages even more rapidly. Bravo to Cath Staincliffe for the original setting and idea, and if you
do decide to include this in your holiday reading, bear in mind what I said about steering clear if you’ve a teenager away travelling. Otherwise, look forward to an engrossing thriller-cum-story about family. Recommended.