Published: 22nd July 2021
Trigger warnings: Missing person storyline, strong sexual references, coercive control
2017: 19 year old Tallulah is going out on a date, leaving her baby with her mother, Kim.
Kim watches her daughter leave and, as late evening turns into night, which turns into early morning, she waits for her return. And waits.
The next morning, Kim phones Tallulah’s friends who tell her that Tallulah was last seen heading to a party at a house in the nearby woods called Dark Place.
She never returns.
2019: Sophie is walking in the woods near the boarding school where her boyfriend has just started work as a head-teacher when she sees a note fixed to a tree.
‘DIG HERE’ . . .
This is a mystery that contains multiple timelines and several possible outcomes, which combine to create something addictive with a gradual build-up of suspense. Although there are areas where the plot does get a bit muddled by superfluous strands, it generally delivers the goods with well developed characters and the way it keeps you guessing despite the lack of genuine twists.
There are a lot of concepts in action along the way, as well as the emergence of interesting and at times hard-hitting themes such as coercive control and unstable relationships. It is these that provide the story with its atmosphere and the keys to unlock the mystery as it slowly unravels in somewhat elaborate yet increasingly sinister fashion.
In the summer of 2017, teenagers Tallulah Murray and Zach Allister go on a night out, leaving their one-year-old son Noah in the care of Tallulah’s mother Kim. However, they go missing in curious circumstances after being last seen at a gathering at a large manor house known as Dark Place, where local college pupil Scarlett Jacques lives.
Kim immediately alerts the police the following morning and tracks down the people who were with Tallulah and Zach at Dark Place, but none of them can account for their movements, with Scarlett claiming that she barely knew Tallulah. As the investigation offers few leads, Kim begins to doubt that the relationship between her daughter and Zach was as cordial as she originally thought.
Just over a year after their disappearance, cosy mystery author Sophie moves to the area with her boyfriend Shaun, who has been appointed as head of the college that Tallulah and Scarlett attended. When she first enters the back garden of her new home, Sophie sees a cardboard sign with an arrow pointing at the ground with the words ‘Dig Here’, leading her to make a discovery that reopens the case.
It was intriguing to see how the plot began in quite an ambiguous way, setting up the mystery by giving the reader certain impressions that turn out to be misleading. After that relatively slow start, it then gathers momentum and the pacing increases as it begins to reveal the truth about Tallulah and Zach, with a fair helping of clues along the way.
While not entirely predictable, it becomes easier to form a basic idea of what ultimately happened to the two teenagers as the story goes on, but some of the other plot strands are less obvious to pin down. The motives of some of the other characters were questionable to say the least, and the way Sophie’s novels were incorporated into the mystery seemed like a very half-baked idea. All the same, the mystery never ceases to hold your attention.
Altogether there are three timelines and each of them is written in the third person. It starts with Kim in the immediate aftermath of Tallulah and Zach’s disappearance, which lays the foundations of the mystery. We then have the perspective of Sophie from when she finds the cryptic message in her back garden and starts to investigate the case, while the final timeline follows Tallulah in the months leading up to the night she went missing.
The first two timelines eventually merge as Kim’s story reaches the present day, but they were all easy to follow and the way the book is structured made it fun to piece together the facts. Tallulah’s storyline was the most interesting as she is undoubtedly flawed but also strong and kind-hearted, and as we learn more about her toxic relationship with the deplorable Zach, you feel an increasing connection to her as a character.
Kim’s perspective is well written as over the course of the story she goes from laid back and relaxed to hollow and bereft as Noah’s sole carer. Sophie is honestly a person with far too much time on her hands, but it was still enjoyable to follow her amateur sleuthing as she became some kind of surrogate for the reader. It was odd how much some people were willing to tell her when she is just a random stranger, though then again this is fiction.
Liam and Lexie came across as quite shifty and not always believable; it seemed like the author was never completely sure how they should fit into the story. In contrast, Scarlett was an extremely memorable character, very unpredictable and self-destructive but also full of effervescence. Her role in the story is compelling and her inherent complexity leapt from the page every time she appeared, even though she can hardly be described as a good person.
As a setting, the name Dark Place has a lot of ominous connotations and it is certainly made to feel imposing, with a lot of emphasis placed on its history and mystique. For the most part the writing is very matter-of-fact, driven by the plot and the characters in equal measure, but it is during these descriptions where it becomes that little bit poetic.
The ending was rather hit and miss. As you go deeper into the story it becomes easier to guess what happened to Tallulah and Zach, but there are still some unexpected surprises to be found. It was less impressive in relation to the sub-plots, which were not resolved particularly well and in the case of the epilogue, did make a huge amount of sense.
Overall, it is an engaging and quite gripping read courtesy of powerful perspectives and a well executed central mystery. It is occasionally let down by some of the more secondary plot strands lacking substance as well as certain side characters, but through all of that it remains difficult to put down, so the positives comfortably outweigh the negatives.
For a Lisa Jewell book this one started relatively slow, but it quickly gathers pace and I ended up flying through it, especially the last 150 pages. Not perfect by any means, but still highly enjoyable and addictive.
My rating: ⭐⭐⭐.5