Jill Dawson: Watch Me Disappear

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.


  1. I’m interested to read this review John because I bought this book in H/B on the basis that I was going to hear Jill Dawson speak at a local lit.fest.I started to read it and couldn’t bring myself to read beyond the first few chapters because it felt too close to the Holly and Jessica tragedy and I didn’t feel enough time had elapsed for anyone to use that in fiction yet.
    Probably me being over-sensitive and in fact I then sold the book on Amazon Marketplace and I still don’t think I could bring myself to read it now.
    Good to read what I’m missing though.

  2. I know what you mean. I expect Dawson, who I think lives in the area, found herself so surrounded and affected by it that her writer’s brain couldn’t not use it. What particularly troubled me in the aftermath of the murders was the newspapers who commodify youthful sexuality even as they whip up paedophile hysteria. I remember an issue of the Daily Mail which on page one denounced Huntley as a child sex pervert, and on page three carried a paparazzi shot of Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie (aged around 13 and 15) on a yacht in their bikinis, with commentary on how gorgeous they looked… This double standard seemed to me to parallel those in the book.

    On the strength of what I’ve read of her so far, I think Dawson is a significant talent. You could do worse than to try Fred & Edie to see what she’s like as a writer without such sensitive or raw subject matter – or indeed Wild Boy, which was highly praised and which I intend to read soon.

  3. Watch Me Disappear – Jill Dawson

    Me too.

    Started and finished on the same day. But didn’t read it; not it, the whole book. Read to p.72, to beyond a point I could have stopped.

    Undoubtedly she is a good writer in parts, very good in parts. Her sense of time and place is conveyed accurately (fashion, TV, food, countryside, houses – the orange bubbled glass of the sliding doors was a neighbour’s horror I had forgotten, Lipton’s Stores etc).

    However, and this was the reason I jumped and flicked from p.72 to the end: the culprit, or the dénouement, was so explicitly foreshadowed (fiveshadowed and sixshadowed) that I knew what coming so early I couldn’t read, knowing, through a further 170 pages to reach the last ten pages. This doesn’t make her a bad writer; it makes me a hurried reader ….. to an exculpatory extent, exculpating the writer, that is.

    p.22: “Dad is still not home.”
    p.45: “After all, men from your own village can’t be rapists or attackers. Only others. Outsiders.”
    p.46: “The men shout things to Dad about his little girl. He smiles and waves to them and calls them Dirty Old Dogs. He tells them to get back to work.”
    p.72: “So many girls … Dad would have had a field-day!”

    As I flicked on, it became even more explicit.

    There is also a line, which I can’t reference, saying crudely (in both meanings) that the father liked Tina to carry his tackle. I mean ….

    One last thing: I read bemused (often) as writers choose ever more esoteric back stories. In this case the Hippocampus kuda. I don’t mind a bit of extraneous information; sometimes I even find it interesting but only when it woven into the story rather than sitting outside it, as in this case. A much more competent example of this would Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide where the “back story” as such concerns the fresh water dolphin of Bengal. Equally as esoteric as the seahorse but, in Ghosh’s, case it was entwined completely in the bigger story.

    So not for me. Technique ultimately, or lack of it, could not overcome the various pleasures.

  4. Sorry you didn’t like it, Quink. Interestingly, I think the very obvious foreshadowing is intentional, as – not wishing to give anything away – the denouement is not actually explicit. It’s much more about what Tina thinks happened, than what actually happened. As such, I think the fact that she in her narrative keeps bringing these points to the forefront in such an obvious way is justifiable, and even essential. But if it isn’t for you, it isn’t for you…

  5. Like yourself, JS, I didn’t buy the book for its whodunit potential. It wasn’t the foreshadowing itself (blind man on a galloping horse etc) but the volume at which Dawson was shouting at me. The references above were an indication of the volume level Dawson is using in this book. Quickly, it began to shout over Tina’s voice which I found frustrating as the writing was enjoyable, largely, between shouts.

  6. Hi Becca. No I am not! There are just too many of them – and I didn’t bother with the Costa or Booker longlists last year, except for those I was going to read anyway. Oddly, the only Book List from which I have actively sought out titles is the Richard & Judy one, and I enjoyed the three I read from it. What that says about my standards is for others to comment on…

    Another reason is that as of today, having stocked up on Brian Moore titles (review of one I’ve just finished will go up in the next day or so), I am swearing not to buy any more books ever again ever, for a few weeks at least.

  7. Hi John
    How lovely to read such intelligent and responsive comments on my novel. But then I would say that, wouldn’t I? Couldn’t resist responding. Sorry, won’t poke my nose in again but I do think you really got it, in all kinds of ways, even the fact that there’s no plot as it’s actually a sort of ‘why can’t we face the obvious’ story-line. All very gratifying, and since it’s always painful to read bad reviews just as much as favourable ones that don’t get it – I’d like to thank you!
    best wishes

  8. Thanks for popping by, Jill. Interestingly, I’ve recently finished Rupert Thomson’s Death of a Murderer (review to follow), which covers a similar area, and found it wanting in pretty much every respect in comparison with Watch Me Disappear. I am very much looking forward to Wild Boy, which has been on my to-be-read pile for rather too long now.

  9. Wow, I can’t believe Jill Dawson wrote a comment! Okay, now my star-struckness is over…

    Absolutely wonderful review, JS. This is highly likely to be my favourite read of the year. Like Quink, though, I thought the fact that we were continuously bombarded with ‘hints’ was a slight turn off. Almost an insult to the reader, did we really need so much handholding? I understand why, though, but still… I also thought we were given a little too much information on child abduction than was necessary (or wanted, anyway) making it sometimes an unsettling subject to read about. But those are minor qualm. That aside, it was a wonderful novel, very clever, and unlike Quink, I loved the seahorse references and thought it tied in perfectly to the memory issues, and the whole story.

    I’ll definitely be hunting out some more of Dawson’s books.

  10. Good to ‘see’ you again steffee. I’ll be reading Dawson’s Wild Boy in the not too distant future (no really, I know I said that above too) and am looking forward to it enormously.

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