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Adam Thorpe - Missing Fay launch

This is a rare treat. Adam Thorpe is a writer whose range and versatility have long been admired by many, since the publication of his first novel Ulverton, arguably his most successful work to date. By the sounds of this recent review, he looks set to repeat that initial triumph. Thopre now lives in France - so don't miss this chance to see this master of his craft in Norwich!

Adam Thorpe’s superb new novel will put this gifted novelist back on the map

Review by David Grylls
The Sunday Times, May 28 2017, 12:01am

It is 25 years since Adam Thorpe came to fame with his virtuoso debut novel Ulverton. An intricate history of a fictional English village composed as a series of colourful monologues, it caught th...e public’s imagination and sold more than 70,000 copies. Since then, nothing in his varied output — poetry, drama, nine more novels — has matched the impact of that initial masterpiece.

His latest novel, a tour-de-force of depth and nuance, should run it close. Set in and around Lincoln in 2011 and 2012, Missing Fay tells the story of a 14-year-old girl who disappears from a council estate. Is she a runaway or a victim? No one knows. Her haunting face on a police photo — red hair, green eyes, a twisted tooth — flits disturbingly across the pages.

Harking back to Thorpe’s earlier fiction (the hero of his 1995 novel Still is mentioned), the book recalls Ulverton by weaving a tapestry of interlaced lives. As in Ulverton (but here through present tense, third person), Thorpe inhabits diverse minds and transmits distinctive voices. Now, though, the unifying thread is a person: a teenage girl with a “damaged mother” and “dodgy stepfather”, who bunks off school and steals from shops.

Just four short chapters recount Fay’s thoughts, tracing the four days before she vanishes. But her presence, or more strongly absence, is inescapable for the other characters. Only Sheena, the manager of an upmarket kiddies’ clothes shop, where the girl occasionally earned a few pounds, is “missing Fay” emotionally. But Mike, an introverted bookshop owner, gradually softens his indignant memory of her foul-mouthed abuse when he caught her filching. Cosmina, a Romanian care-home assistant, is troubled by finding what might be her coat. Chris, a frazzled television producer who has taken refuge in a monastery, dreams of her as an angel.

Given the minute details lavished on the characters — of jobs, memories, families, fears — the result could easily have become fragmentary. But, amazingly, Thorpe holds it together. The novelis a cat’s cradle of cross-references (and cats, purring, suspicious, tortured, figure in it tellingly). Patterns and symmetries integrate the stories. Identical episodes are retold with radical switches of perspective. An old man terrifying Fay in a park is actually recalling the faces he once pulled to amuse his little daughter. Cosmina’s polite relationship with Mike is for him a tense saga of yearning adoration. Two characters have disintegrating marriages, another two painful religious childhoods.

Supplementing the elaborately plaited narrative are curiously persistent motifs: whispering voices, eerie coldness, allusions to Red Riding Hood, angels and vampires. Gothic elements sneak through the text. The demonic Lincoln Imp, the cathedral’s famous gargoyle, presides over parts of the action.

All this could make Missing Fay sound mystical. In fact, one of its strengths is its realism. The lives of the characters are interpenetrated by urgent contemporary social issues: an ageing population, globalisation, environmental degradation. Fay’s vanishing takes place during a meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos. East European immigration is explored from several different angles. Thorpe’s underrated talent for comedy ripples pleasingly through several chapters. The opening one, describing an eco-keen couple trying to perk up their recalcitrant kids while dismayed by the charms of the Lincolnshire coast (mudflats, “puddled dilapidation”, “a rampart of static caravans and bungalows”), is a wonderful piece of laugh-out-loud satire.

Missing Fay is superb on many levels. Admittedly, some readers might complain that not only Fay is missing. Read as a thriller, the book lacks urgency; nor does it supply a neat resolution. But it is far more than a thriller. It is a vivid portrait of a particular locality, a psychological study of overlapping lives, a pitch-perfect piece of ventriloquism (as always, Thorpe is expert with dialect) and a sweeping conspectus of contemporary concerns. It is indeed a mystery story — but one that subtly tells you all you need to know. Thorpe has never really gone missing, but with the publication of this cornucopia he will surely burst back into prominence.