The first strange thing Stella notices on her way home from the cinema, is the missing jacaranda blossoms. That morning, the street had been ‘awash with electric blue, fallen blossoms,’ now it’s cold and the branches have been stripped bare. Home, an apartment with water views is a broken down, boarded-up building. And when Stella goes to phone her husband, her mobile has no signal. Nothing makes sense.
In desperation, Stella returns to her original family home, only to meet a younger version of herself and her family, children and husband included. Somehow, she has journeyed back 20 years in time. Passing herself off as a relative who went missing decades ago, she accepts an invitation to stay.
But this is no ordinary time travelling story. Like that excellent novel, The Time Traveller’s Wife, it dips into the complications, emotional and otherwise, of re-visiting your past. Weaving herself into family life under a false identity is a delicate and dangerous balancing act for Stella. Not only must she come up with a fictional back story on the run, she has to be sure to make no references to modern technology or politics or world events that haven’t yet happened, has to keep her mobile phone and superior computer skills hidden and remain composed whilst observing a slice of her life unfold yet again, with the benefit of hindsight. (And you thought your life was complicated).
While the time travel is an important plot device, it is only one aspect of The Lost Girls, Jennifer Spence’s highly original and haunting, second work of fiction for adults. The writing is easy, silken, the novel deeply human, a compelling story of family, of the powerlessness of love sometimes to avert disaster, and of getting the opportunity to rectify mistakes, to prevent something dreadful happening.
Some intriguing questions lie at the heart of The Lost Girls: if you had the chance to change a pivotal moment in your past, the one that changed the entire direction of your life and that of others, would you? How far would you go to save the life of someone you loved? Would you break the law, breach your own ethics to ensure their survival? Or to punish someone for their role in a tragedy that broke your heart?
These are some of the dilemmas Stella faces as slips back into the life she once led, alternatively amused, concerned, wide-eyed, angry, avenging angel one moment, heartbroken the next.
The plot unravels deliciously in layers and twists, suspense threading its way through the story in a quiet, understated way, making it all the more intense. Imperfect memory plays its part, adding an air of uncertainty.
Alongside the puzzles of her own past, is the unsolved mystery of Stella’s beautiful Aunt Linda who vanished as a young woman. Trawling through family history, the friendships and events, the neighbourhood where she grew up, clues to what really happened to her missing aunt pop up. Solving this mystery becomes an imperative.
Whichever way you look at it – murder mystery, crusade for justice, compelling human drama, fascinating exploration of ‘what-ifs?’ – The Lost Girls is an ingenious, gripping and emotionally powerful story, unsettling at times but all the better and more enthralling because of it.