Published: 19th July 2019
Genre: Contemporary Fiction/Mystery
Trigger warnings: Sexual abuse storyline, drugs, alcohol dependency
John Docherty’s mother has just been taken into a nursing home following a massive stroke and she’s unlikely to be able to live independently again.
With no other option than to sell the family home, John sets about packing up everything in the house. In sifting through the detritus of his family’s past he’s forced to revisit, and revise his childhood.
For in a box, in the attic, he finds undeniable truth that he had a brother who disappeared when he himself was only a toddler. A brother no one ever mentioned. A brother he knew absolutely nothing about. A discovery that sets John on a journey from which he may never recover.
For sometimes in that space where memory should reside there is nothing but silence, smoke and ash. And in the absence of truth, in the absence of a miracle, we turn to prayer. And to violence.
The title of this book makes it appear whimsical and escapist, but the reality is anything but. What begins as a relatively harmless mystery involving a quest for self-discovery and hidden memories, eventually becomes a raw and impactful story that does not hold back when exploring a highly sensitive subject matter in compelling detail.
While I did find the writing and several aspects of the mystery fairly hit and miss, there is no doubt that the author brilliantly captures the emotion and atmosphere within the book, with expert portrayals of damaged characters and buried secrets. It was therefore impossible not to feel a connection with the narrative, such was its candour.
John Docherty’s mother has just suffered a stroke and is residing in a nursing home. While clearing the family home, he comes across a photograph which shows him as a very young child, next to a teenage boy who looks exactly like him. After conducting research in his local library, John discovers that the boy is an older brother called Thomas, who his parents had never told him about.
Thomas went missing nearly thirty years ago and has not been seen since, so John and his younger brother Chris attempt to unravel the mystery of what happened and who was involved in his disappearance. But John realises that there are many other unanswered questions from his childhood; awful memories that have been cast away.
The opening to the book yields very few clues about what is to come and the direction the story is likely to take. The mystery itself is a little slow going to begin with as the author chooses to focus more on character development, but it certainly brings about plenty of intrigue as several suspects gradually come to light. However, some of the tactics John and Chris employed to get information were pretty far-fetched, and I was amazed at how many people fell for their elaborate cover stories.
Most of the narrative is in the first person, from John’s point of view, although there are some moments early in the book that switch to the third person for no explicable reason, and I found that quite confusing. Every now and then it goes back to 1990 and when Thomas disappeared, which raised some interesting questions about how closely the past and present storylines intersected.
John is an emotionally complex and damaged character. As he develops over the course of the book you really get to understand him better and some of his actions begin to make more sense. The author does a brilliant job here, conveying his flaws and making him believable as the truth of his life is eventually brought to the surface.
The book highlights the many ways people attempt to cope after suffering from abuse, and that is particularly evident in terms of some of the supporting characters. I grew to quite like the dynamic between John and Chris, who was very proactive and forward-thinking, while Paul was a truly supportive friend. My only problem was with Seth, who felt a tad cliched.
Towards the end, the book became extremely powerful, such were the revelations and the knowledge that John had to confront. It hits all the right notes, as all the thoughts he had to process and his conflicting emotions were made to feel very tangible. It definitely left its mark on me as the reader.
Elsewhere, the writing is a bit of mixed bag. There are times where it is really poetic and abstract, until it reverts to a more conventional way of storytelling. The book is set in Scotland, and that fact is never lost on the reader at any point. My biggest issue was with the dialogue, which at times felt very clunky and unnatural.
Overall, the strength of this book is how it deals with sensitive topics, with a believable main character and his very real struggles making it quite moving when the full story becomes clear. The mystery was not the most gripping I have ever read, but while some aspects in this story were below-par, others were outstanding.
An award-winning poet, Michael J. Malone has had his work published in numerous magazines and literary publications across the UK. He has gone on to become a novelist, beginning with A Suitable Lie, which won the Pitlochry Prize from the Scottish Association of Writers.
In The Absence Of Miracles is his fourth novel, but the plan for it first came about in the late 1990s. He has also worked as a bookseller, and a sales executive for Faber & Faber.
Brilliant in some places; in others less so. However, the impact that this story leaves is undeniable. If I based my rating on that alone it would be five stars, but parts of the book did not captivate me in quite the same way.
My rating: ⭐⭐⭐