An art consultant recalls how the disappearance of a child wounded the boy’s family and destroyed his relationship with the youth’s mother.
On a spring day in West London, a 12-year-old boy named Dan rides off to school on his bike. He fails to return that evening or the next day. His mother Annie, a widow and a college French teacher, becomes distraught, turning to Julian, her live-in boyfriend, for support. An inspector and his assistant arrive, and the inspector’s persistent questions reveal Dan was not the model child he appeared to be. Just before he disappeared, his school performance had declined, he had turned flippant, often quarreling with Julian, and one day he had come home sporting a tattoo. The official investigation suggests that a crisp police procedural will follow, one probing the turbulent changes that occur as a child becomes an adolescent. But as Dan’s absence stretches to weeks, months and then three years, Frayn turns to the widening fissure in Annie and Julian’s relationship. The two have always been opposites in temperament. Annie is the more liberal and casual of the pair; Julian the more conservative, taciturn and withdrawn—even repressed. They had quarreled bitterly over the choice of Dan’s school, Julian suggesting that the low-performing students at the one Annie prefers would negatively affect Dan. Once Dan disappears, recriminations over sending Dan to the school Annie favored rise up, as do other problems. Annie, trying to preserve life as it existed when Dan left, stalls on pursuing the investigation into his whereabouts, while Julian pushes forward with it. Then one day, a man from Glasgow calls Annie to say her son has turned up at a shelter. Dan arrives home in London, claiming he remembers nothing of the past several years.
Annie and Julian’s relationship is sharply drawn, but despite a startling revelation, the book’s second half lets the reader down with plot loopholes and unanswered questions.