Book review: After You Were Gone

When it comes to nightmarish scenarios, a missing child is hard to beat, as celebrated Adelaide writer Vikki Wakefield proves in her first foray into adult crime fiction.

Oct 07, 2022, updated Oct 07, 2022

After You Were Gone opens on the day young mother Abbie loses sight of her daughter Sarah while shopping at a crowded market.

Six years later, with Sarah’s disappearance still unsolved, Abbie has tentatively begun rebuilding her life with new husband Murray and his older children. Just days after her wedding, however, a nameless stranger starts calling, promising information about Sarah if Abbie carries out a series of tasks designed to tear down her newfound happiness.

The novel’s chapters alternate between the present-day storyline and flashbacks to events from Abbie’s past. These flashback sections – threaded with just as much page-turning tension as the main plot – follow Abbie as she leaves home at 18, struggles through single motherhood, and deals with the immediate aftermath of Sarah’s disappearance.

Wakefield’s talents as an award-winning young-adult author shine through in her depictions of a teenaged Abbie yearning for independence as she navigates blue-collar suburbia and dingy flatshares.

In her initial dealings with the mystery voice, Abbie spends more time waiting around for instructions and carrying out the caller’s demands than driving the plot forward on her own terms. As the stakes are raised and she draws closer to discovering the truth, however, the dynamic shifts and she emerges as a complex, memorable protagonist. The novel concludes with a series of satisfying and unpredictable twists as Abbie’s past rapidly catches up with her present.

A strong theme throughout After You Were Gone is that of motherhood: what makes someone a good (or bad) mother, and how do they navigate this identity within their family and community? Abbie’s complicated relationships with her own mother, her sister, her stepchildren, and even her husband’s ex-wife, make for a thought-provoking backdrop against which to explore the impact of Sarah’s disappearance. Abbie’s formidable mother plays a particularly significant role throughout the novel, and it would have been interesting to delve deeper into the reasons behind their uneasy alliance.

Wakefield ­delivers compulsive, heart-thumping suspense in spades, and in the midst of this also gives us a nuanced portrait of the wide-reaching effects of family trauma.

Filled with characters with complex motives and desires and distinct ways of responding to grief, Abbie’s world feels vividly real and recognisable, making her story all the more haunting.

After You Were Gone is published by Text Publishing and available now.

Vikki Wakefield is the author of five young adult novels, the most recent of which, This is How We Change the Ending, won the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s 2020 Book of the Year Award for Older Readers. Wakefield will speak about her new thriller in conversation with Jo Case (InReview’s Diary of a Bookseller columnist)  at an event at Burnside Library on October 20 (details here).

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