Amongst your James Pattersons and your John Grishams, your Karin Slaughters and your Stieg Larssons, a new member of the thriller genre pack has signalled their arrival: Charlie Donlea, with his second novel The Girl Who Was Taken.
Donlea’s novel, which flits between the past and the present, follows forensic pathologist Livia Cutty. Cutty is determined to piece together the whereabouts of her younger sister Nicole, who has been missing for a year. Nicole and her classmate Megan McDonald were both held captive, and only Megan managed to escape. Megan is now a celebrity, pasting her large smile on talk shows around the nation while promoting her novel about the traumatic ordeal. Society and the mass media have all but forgotten about Nicole, who doesn’t share the same girl-next-door aura and law enforcement family background as Megan. Livia hasn’t forgotten Nicole, however, and when the body of a man who appeared to have committed suicide lands on her autopsy table, Livia discovers that she’s just received the first major clue to her sister’s disappearance. She contacts Megan for help, and the two work to piece together the crucial flashes of memory that are only now beginning to grow within Megan’s mind.
Before I started this novel, I must admit that I held a preconceived wariness towards it. In the years following Gillian Flynn’s smash-hit 2012 novel Gone Girl, a flurry of sub-par knock-offs, all with ‘Girl’ in the title, emerged. Of course the latest Girl would be average. Surely The Girl Who Was Taken would be nothing more but a cliché teenage version of Gone Girl, right? Actually, wrong. Mostly wrong, anyway. The Girl Who Was Taken is a surprisingly suspenseful, unique and somewhat multilayered story.
Donlea’s precise descriptions of Livia cutting through corpse after corpse at the morgue lent the novel a clinical, creepy air. This was a nice touch that lingers throughout the entire novel. Livia discovering the existence of a chilling club whose members are obsessed with kidnappings and kidnap victims heaped on the creepy factor, and not in a bad way. I was repulsed, yes, but I wanted to keep reading. The breezy flashbacks of Megan and Nicole’s teenage exploits, on the other hand, were bubbles and froth. They provided a stark contrast to the more urgent, dark air of the story’s present. At times it worked, but often it felt a little trite and forced. Donlea’s true talent clearly lies within the macabre.
Livia and Megan were intriguing characters, who were presented in a way that made them feel real and yet mysterious – once I turned the last page I wanted to know more about both of them. Nicole was less lifelike. Within her narrative arc and personality lay the opportunity to present to readers a complex and disarming character. And she was disarming, certainly, but she was never given the chance to become anything more than a bad-girl trope. Perhaps the lack of weight given to Nicole was a reflection upon the way that society treats victims who don’t fit a certain cookie-cutter mold – they’re cast aside, and never afforded the same superstar status as more ‘pristine’ victims. Nonetheless, Nicole as a character was one of the weaker points within an otherwise entertaining novel.
As a mystery, The Girl Who Was Taken worked well. I wasn’t as floored as I was by Gone Girl, sure, but I was definitely satisfied. With that said, there were certainly moments throughout the novel where things got a little confusing, and I had to re-read previous pages in order to ensure that I was placing certain characters correctly. The number of supporting characters within the narrative could have been cut down in order to avoid this.
Overall, The Girl Who Was Taken was a little messy, but ultimately enthralling, and it ends in a way that will divide readers. Some may snicker, some may hold up their paperback copies and scream in frustration. Either way, once you start reading, you probably won’t want to stop.