The Lost Girls
The past casts dark shadows . . .
Curl Curl, January 1978. Fourteen year old Angie Buchanan is abducted and murdered, and a family is changed forever.
When, thirty years later, a journalist arrives with questions about the tragic events, everyone involved is forced to reconnect with a past they would prefer to forget.
For Angie’s cousin Jane, this re-examination of her childhood is initially cathartic, an escape from the uncertainties of her adult life. But as more details about Angie’s last days are revealed, Jane is forced to question not only the events of the past, but the reality of her present. Are the people she loves who they say they are? Is this the life she really wanted?
For the investigating journalist, Erin, the family’s confidences help to illuminate some dark corners of her own life. But whose version of Angie’s story – whose version of Angie herself –is the real one? And can past wrongs ever be made right?
The shocking truth will change everyone involved, and nothing – not the past, not the present, and not even the future – is as they once imagined.
Part family drama, part psychological thriller, The Lost Girls is a haunting and utterly gripping read.
I am forty-four years old. A happily married woman. I shouldn’t be here. I shouldn’t be doing this. But if anyone were to ask me why I’m doing what I’m doing, I’d tell them that it’s something that I have to do. That me being out at this time of night – way past my bedtime – drinking myself silly with this virtual stranger is not only inevitable but necessary. That although I’m letting him run his hand down and then up my thigh, and imagining falling into a bed, or onto a table, or being pushed up against a wall, imagining being fucked by him some- where, anywhere, wherever, before the night is over, the situation is more complicated than it seems. I’d have to explain that despite appearances it’s not just base lust; that this is all about fairness, about paying a debt, about redressing past wrongs. You see, in my head this is all about the past. It’s about Angie, about Rob and about Mick, too, in a strange way.
But what if I’m wrong? What if this isn’t about them or whatever the hell went on in the past? What if it’s just about me? About my life now? What then?
Jane, May 2010
How good would it be if each moment of a life could be contained somehow? If each moment could be made separate, discrete, could be quarantined from the rest. So that there’s an end. An over.
Take this particular moment in time, an ordinary morning. Jess, my daughter, twenty-three – grown-up, but a fledgling still in the way twenty-three-year-olds are these days, constantly crashing into the sides of their suddenly-too-small nests – a half-eaten piece of toast in one hand, coffee in the other, hunting for her sunnies, her handbag, her bus ticket, running late for some class or meeting. Rob, dear Rob, coffee in his left hand, newspaper in his right, oblivious to our daughter’s noise, her habitual chaos. And there’s me: Jane, mother, wife, enjoying my cup of tea and the warmth of the early-morning sunshine that’s streaming through the kitchen window; me, looking forward to the busy day ahead, excited about the future, content with my lot, monarch of all I survey.
At least that’s how I like to remember it. But it’s a funny thing, memory. What if it wasn’t really as I recall? What if I wasn’t quite as content as the picture makes out? If I were to think long and hard and honestly (though who wants to do that, really?), perhaps I was already feeling vague stirrings of discontent, murmurs that were soon to become something far louder, more insistent, until they became a deafening, all-encompassing roar. And perhaps some of what happened in the next few months would have happened, regardless.
There’s no way of stopping the past rising up and making its claims on an already complicated present. If only there were. And maybe there’s no such thing, despite what we might hope, despite what we may wish for, as a new beginning.
It’s Jess who brings the whole thing back into our lives, who stirs it all up again. It was inadvertent of course – there was no way that she could have known what had happened, or what was to come. How could she? None of us were warned; and none prepared. This particular morning Jess has said her goodbyes, banging out the front door in her usual last-minute panic only to rush back into the kitchen seconds later, breathless, eyes wide.
‘OMG, Mother! I nearly forgot. There’s this woman – I can’t remem- ber her name, she gave me a card, but God knows where that is. Anyway, she’s, like, this producer, and she wants to talk to you about the Angie thing for a radio documentary. Some crime program she’s doing. I told her you wouldn’t mind. She’s going to call you at the shop – or maybe she said she’d call in at the shop. I can’t remember. I thought that’d be best – didn’t think you’d like me to give out the home phone number. You don’t mind do you?’ She offers her sunniest smile, gives a regal wave, and dashes back down the hall without waiting for a reply, slamming the door behind her again. It takes me a full minute to process what my daughter has just told me. To think up a suitable response. And by that time Jess is long gone.
The Angie thing.
Well, what did I expect? That was how we’d wanted her to regard it. All of us: me, Rob, Mum and Dad, Mick. Like it was no big deal. As if it was something we didn’t need to dwell on, to make too much of. Of course we’d given Jess the bare facts, she knew the story – it’s not as if we’d ever hidden it from her. She’d read through the collection of yellowing newspaper articles, sighed over the unimaginable awfulness of it all. But to Jess, it was just an old story – a tale she’d tell her friends occasionally. The grief and the terror were all vicarious, thank goodness; it was over well before she was born, long ago, if not far away.
The Angie thing.
But thirty years isn’t really all that long ago. Not for the rest of us, anyway.
I’m just about to close the shop when the woman walks in. I’ve spent the best part of the day attempting an inventory for the auctioneer, and although my effort has been half-hearted, I’m feeling exhausted, and more than ready to go home.
At first I mistake the woman for one of those painful customers who hurry through the door, defiantly within their rights, at 5:29 p.m., wander aimlessly for ten or fifteen minutes, then saunter back out, not once making eye contact. I have a few things to do after closing – a prescription to pick up before the chemist closes, library books to return, food shopping – and for a moment I seriously contemplate telling the woman to piss off, thereby flouting my twenty-odd years of dedicated customer service. But of course I don’t do that, can’t. Instead I offer her a cool but polite greeting as she approaches.
‘Are you Mrs Tait? Jess’s mum?’ The woman’s voice is low and smooth.
‘Yes. Is she okay?’ My panic is immediate and primal, if irrational: the woman is quite clearly not a police officer, nor any sort of official. ‘Oh,’ the woman says. ‘Well, I assume so. I mean, I’m not actually here about Jess.’ I relax, wait for an explanation. The woman is not a customer, that much is clear, she hasn’t so much as glanced around, but I can’t place her. She’s slight, compact, dressed plainly, all in black – jeans, long-sleeved T-shirt, low-heeled boots. Her hair is dark, cut short; her smooth pale skin bare of makeup. She might be my age, but she could be much younger, in her mid-thirties, perhaps.
‘I’m Erin Fury.’
‘Oh?’ The name offers no clues, though she is clearly expecting me to recognise it. I wonder for a moment if the woman is some sort of celebrity, if I’ve been selected (via Jess, no doubt) for some dreadful reality TV show.
‘I met Jess at TAFE yesterday. I’m doing a documentary on murders and their aftermath – focusing particularly on the effect on the victims’ families. Jess said there’d been a murder in your family years ago – that you wouldn’t mind being interviewed.’
‘Ah.’ The penny drops – Jess’s radio producer. ‘Jess did mention something this morning, but I —’
‘She gave me your work number, but I was in the area. I thought a direct approach might be better.’
‘Oh, well. Actually, I don’t really know that I’m all that comfortable with the idea. It was a bit naughty of Jess to say anything without asking me first.’
‘Oh, that’s a pity. I had a bit of a google and your family’s case is particularly interesting because there wasn’t just the one crime. We’re a bit short on these sort of crimes – serial killings – they’re pretty rare here in Australia, so you’re a bit of a find.’ The woman’s gaze becomes intense, her dark eyes fierce.
‘Well, I’m not sure that —’
‘Look. I know it’s probably not something you like to talk about, and I understand it could be very painful, remembering such a dreadful time, but I’m not doing some sort of sensationalist hatchet job or anything. It’ll be a serious radio documentary; I’m currently talking to the ABC and SBS. It’s designed to be used as a resource, as well, for other families who find themselves in similar situations. I’m hoping to sell it on to Compassionate Friends and other counselling services.’
‘Oh. It sounds very . . . worthwhile. But, to be honest, it’s not so much that it’s painful, it’s just that I’m not sure how helpful I can be. I was very young. I only remember bits and pieces. And I’m, well, as you can see, we’re in the process of closing down the shop —’ I gesture towards the chaos. ‘It’s a bit of a crazy time for me. I don’t know when I’d find the time.’
The woman looks around her, as if noticing where she is for the first time. ‘Well, why don’t we start now? This seems like as good a place to do it as any. You’re about to close, aren’t you? So it’d be quiet, we wouldn’t be disturbed.’ She takes a little red device, no bigger than a mobile phone, from her handbag and waits on my answer – expectant, determined.
For some reason – some reason I will never fully understand, some latent desire to poke around in the past, or maybe just curiosity or even simple boredom – I don’t say no. I don’t tell this woman that I’m busy, that I’m tired, that I still have an hour of errands ahead of me, and that all I really want to do is to go home, pour myself a long, cold glass of sav blanc, turn on the television and let the exhausting tedium of the day fall away. Instead, I look at my little gilt carriage clock, which has been keeping perfect time since 1910. Twenty five to six.
‘Why not?’ I walk to the front door, click the lock and turn the sign to closed.
The woman makes her way to a little reproduction mahogany Queen Anne dining suite in a dimly lit corner of the shop. It’s the sort of suite that’s become increasingly difficult to sell over the past few years; lovely to look at, but completely impractical – the French-polished timber easily marked, the chairs uncomfortably upright and a little wobbly, the satin upholstery cold and slippery. But somehow the woman seems quite at home in such a setting. She even appears rather therapist-like, in an old-fashioned, clichéd way: calm and focused, slightly distant. I resist the urge to recline on a nearby chaise longue, and sit across from her at the table. The woman’s preparations for the interview are methodical; her recorder, notebook and pens, a small bottle of mineral water, are all arranged carefully. Close up, the woman is not plain, as I’d first thought, but beautiful – her eyes large and dark, mouth full, cheek- bones high. I wonder whether she’s deliberately made herself appear plain, bland. And why.
She clears her throat then speaks quite formally, as if she’s reading from a script.
‘I’m going to ask you some questions. I will be recording your answers. I’ll then make a full written transcript, which I can supply to you if you like. Our conversation will be edited for the documentary, but I’ll get your approval before anything’s made public. There are actually a few legal documents that need signing, release forms, permissions, that sort of thing. You can go over them now, if you like, or I can give them to you to take home and read.’
‘Oh.’ It was too much to take in, all at once. ‘I’ll read through it later, if that’s okay.’
The woman looks relieved. ‘Good. Let’s get started then, shall we?’
Number Of Pages: 280
Published: 26th February 2014
Country of Publication: AU
Dimensions (cm): 23.0 x 15.3 x 2.1
Weight (kg): 23.0
Edition Number: 1
A wonderful, unputdownable story by a great Australian author.
James’ character development is flawless, building up a picture of each of the characters subtly, as they duck and weave around one another . . . this book is a rich, dense novel, that goes so much deeper than whodunit . . . this is as much literary fiction as it is a crime novel, driven, above all, by character growth, deep themes, and exquisite writing.
With a well crafted, multi-layered plot exploring the ways in which the past shapes us, and the difficulty in leaving it behind, The Lost Girls is an engrossing story of domestic drama and suspense.
Australian Book Review
Wendy James has again demonstrated her flair for suspenseful diversion, buttressed by her not inconsiderable literary talent.
The Weekend Australian
[James’s] novels have come to inhabit this interesting space between taut domestic drama and crime thriller…Yet, the poise and sureness James brings to the writing here sets this novel apart from anything she has done previously . . . the novel is nothing less than compelling . . . The Lost Girls grabs hold of you and doesn’t let go — the sort of book you find yourself still reading long after you intended to put it down. In short, everything you want a novel of this kind to be.
… a master of suburban suspense.