Jill Dawson first came to my attention a few years ago with Fred & Edie, her (cough) ‘factional’ account of two real life lovers who were hanged in 1923 for the murder of the husband who got in the way. It was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2001 but lost it to (or ‘was robbed by’) Kate Grenville’s The Idea of Perfection. Since then Dawson has written another novel inspired by true events – Wild Boy, which is on my to-be-read pile so I’ll say no more of it now – and most recently, Watch Me Disappear, which recently came out in paperback.
This has a much more nebulous factual element – the murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in Soham in August 2002 form a background to Dawson’s otherwise entirely fictional story. Cambridgeshire and the Fens feature as full-face characters in the book, their flatness and black muddiness from the 1970s to the present day evoked much more successfully here than in Graham Swift’s boggy Waterland.
The narrator, Tina Humber, is a marine biologist specialising in dwarf seahorses. Really though, her story is one of that knottiest of modern concerns, child sexuality and its intersection with the adult variety. She keeps seeing visions of Mandy Baker, a contemporary who went missing aged ten, and who was never found. Tina, returning to England for her brother’s wedding, begins to wonder if Mandy’s disappearance could be connected to her father’s suicide: well, he did leave their mother for a girl young enough to be his daughter…
And so Dawson teases out a quite fascinating and subtly horrifying story of girlhood and sex, now and then. She brings out the central contradiction today where children are allowed to become sexualised at a younger age, and simultaneously kept fearful of a notional paedophile peril which is no more prevalent today than it was thirty years ago. At the same time, she allows Tina to remember her own sexual awakenings, deftly opening the difficult subject of how pubescent children can revel, still innocent, in their blossoming sexuality, unaware of the wilder shores of this wonderful new found land. The scenes of ten- or twelve-year-old Tina discovering her brothers’ porn magazines, or losing her virginity to a schoolboy really old enough to know better, and how these events colour her view of her own sex, are exceptionally vivid and affecting. Indeed, the writing throughout throws colour on everything it describes – from sugar beets to glossy erotica – and makes thrusting three-dimensional life from the black and white page.
I’ve still no idea why a fair man and a dark man are pushing me so hard, why this prickly privet is piercing my neck like that, tearing at the skin on my back; why they are pushing at me, and one of them is making this terrible groaning, as if he is going to be sick, and my cheekbones feel like they will splinter under the weight of his fingers; and right in the centre of me I’m suddenly made of honeycomb. And I’m twelve, I’m two years older than Mandy was when she disappeared: I’m shaking, violently, head to toe, glimpsing the colour, the smell, or taste or texture of what might have happened to her, the thing itself, the thing no one ever talks to me about. Any minute now this man – this boy? – will burst through my skin and I will be over with, finished, my body will crumble behind it; all of me, crumble to dust.
What Dawson has done in Watch Me Disappear is tackle subject matter familiar to readers of Gordon Burn – death, home, the murky area where sex collides with darker things – but without the sometimes offputting horror of his grim relish. If it has a weakness, it’s that the plot doesn’t come to much, but such was my relief at reading my first book in – what? – half a dozen that I loved more or less unreservedly, that I was quite happy to overlook that.