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‘...this engrossing, unforgettable work of wonder.’

The Times

Missing Fay

Publication date: 01/06/2017

Synopsis:

A spirited, restless fourteen-year-old, Fay, goes missing from a Lincoln council estate. Is she a runaway, or a victim – another face on a poster gradually fading with time? The story of her last few days before she vanishes is interwoven with the varied lives of six locals – whether aware or unaware of her presence or absence, all touched in life-changing ways.

David is an eco-campaigner on a family holiday on the bleak Lincolnshire coast; Howard, a retired steel worker with some dodgy friends; Cosmina, a Romanian immigrant struggling as a care-home nurse; Sheena, middle-aged and single, running a kiddies’ clothes shop, is sexually entangled with the peculiar Gavin, while dreaming of Paul, up the lane; Mike, the misanthropic owner of the haunted second-hand bookshop, is secretly in love with Cosmina; and Chris, a TV producer become Trappist monk, can’t quite leave the ordinary world behind.

All are involuntary witnesses to the lost girl; paths cross, threads touch, connections are made or lost. Is Fay alive or dead? Or somewhere in between?

These characters have been with me since the year 2001, when I wrote some twenty entirely improvised short stories. I’ve revisited these voices many times since, so they are now very close to me. Their original appearance surprised, and I’ve let them go on surprising. Fay herself is a kind of electrical charge that runs through the entire narrative, illuminating both them and their setting.

I wanted to set a novel in Lincolnshire, a ‘forgotten’ rural county with pockets of serious poverty that had devastating consequences for contemporary Britain by being the birthplace of UKIP, who feasted on fear, despair and the sense of being forgotten. Missing Fay is now being called a ‘Brexlit’ novel, which I am not at all unhappy about, although I started it before Brexit was thought of.

Reviews:

Sunday Times

David Grylls: May 28, 2017

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 the 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 novel is 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.

Guardian

Andrew Michael Hurley: June 22, 2017

This is a novel about the ineffectiveness of the individual against those forces of commerce and politics which govern our lives in the 21st century… Thorpe’s vision for now and the future is bleak, and justifiably so… Missing Fay is a welcome and timely work about loneliness and alienation in a rootless, restless England. In years to come, when we are trying to understand the complexities that led from ‘Broken Britain’ to Brexit, this thoughtful, unsettling and intricate novel may well provide some of the answers.

The Times

Melissa Katsoulis, June 10, 2017

One of those rare writers who can do the magic of completely disappearing and letting his characters… speak for themselves… Each character is searching for something… This is a portrait of the small steps that people take each day to get where they want to be. A celebration of life’s journey… Thorpe is not a regular fixture on literary prize shortlists. Surely that will change with this engrossing, unforgettable work of wonder.

Irish Times

Eileen Battersby: June 24 2017

Not only Britain’s most underrated writer, he is also among the most original. He is a very good storyteller, with an inspired feel for ordinary detail, yet in addition to his understated prose as effortless as it is exact, he excels at characterisation as well as sudden flashes of brilliant comic exasperation. Thorpe’s creations live off the page and although not all of them are likeable, they are always real. Their words and thoughts are true to the personalities Thorpe has crafted for them… it is believable, human, sustained by characterisation, nuanced prose and a robust, natural humanity all of its own. Further evidence, as if needed, that Adam Thorpe is a very fine writer indeed. Novelists don’t have to be accomplished poets, yet it clearly helps.

Mail on Sunday

Anthony Gardner: June 4, 2017

All over Lincolnshire there are posters of a vanished teenager… But the focus is less on her than on the lives of six other people – from a holidaying eco-warrior to a grumpy bookseller – who may or may not hold clues to the mystery. Thorpe’s ability to inhabit these disparate characters is hugely impressive, and he excels at charting the often volatile mood swings within a relationship.

Financial Times

Luke Brown: August 25, 2017

The mystery of the missing girl cleverly connects lives that rarely intersect. One of Thorpe’s chief themes is the difficulty of overcoming barriers that we erect between each other… The novel suggests how artificial xenophobia is, how it is perpetrated politically and blights the lives of the xenophobes and the migrants… Thorpe’s teeming free-indirect style interweaves a tapestry of prejudices… Welcome to Brexit-land. This is a clear-sighted work of art. With great empathy it imagines lives which, hidden from each other, are revealed in their common causes to the reader; if Thorpe is right, a better world, while unlikely, is possible.

The Times Literary Supplement

Kate McLoughlin: May 31, 2017

Thorpe has been acclaimed for his literary ventriloquism, and his mastery of diverse voices and uncanny insight into different kinds of lives are evident again in Missing Fay. Particularly impressive are the shopkeepers on Totter Hill, their dry camaraderie, their droll unspoken assessments of their clientele. Mike, for example, knows the type who likes to “stand bowed over . . . some near-worthless Penguin paperback with a coffee ring on its green cover and feel they have been time-lapsed into a yesteryear when everything was solid, sensuous and real”. One feels his wry, resigned despair. Subtly, insistently, these richly textured, interwoven lives reveal to us that we are more connected to each other, and to our environment, than we commonly acknowledge.