With last year’s magnificent “No One Gets Out Alive” still a raw wound in my brain, I couldn’t wait to read Adam Nevill’s latest from Pan. My anticipation was also stoked by the semi-apocalyptic setting – a personal favourite – and I found that the author has thrown everything into this violent, dystopian journey of love and obsession.
The world is frying on the brink of an environmental catastrophe that’s been building for years. Starvation and militia violence consumes the third world, and here in the UK, organised crime has flourished as the death toll spirals beneath soaring temperatures. People are forced to grow their own food, public services are stretched to breaking and on top of this, the country reels beneath an unprecedented refugee crisis.
Amid all this, we meet “the father” – only ever referred to by this title – whose young daughter was snatched from his garden two years ago. It’s a scene replayed on a crushing loop in his head, and the story finds him stalking the sweltering streets to gather information from paedophiles who’ve slipped through the net due to cuts in social services.
He’s helped by an anonymous telephone contact whom he assumes is some kind of frustrated child welfare officer, and his nocturnal strikes become increasingly challenging. This singular vocation in life is breaking the father’s mind, of which he’s aware, but he owes it to his daughter to never stop searching.
Despite his bitter rage and what he is forced to do, the father doesn’t initially consider himself a killer or a bad man, but his search soon leads him to clash with “King Death”. This is an enormous network of chaos-worshipping gangsters who have their fingers in everything from street crime, politics, and of course, human trafficking. They thrive on drugs, corruption, the infiltration of governments and police forces, and possess a fondness for rusty-machete beheadings.
King Death is a genuinely terrifying presence in the book. You truly get that it’s impossible to hide from them, and what awaits can only be the stuff of nightmares and snuff movies. And as they worship death, it also makes it difficult for the father to gather information. Tell a King Death child abductor that you’ll shoot him in the face if he doesn’t spill his guts, and he’ll smile, spout some morbid spirituality, and then cajole you into pulling the trigger. More extreme measures are required to crack these nuts, which is a real test of the father’s limits.
Indeed, one of the triumphs of this book is that as the father is drawn deeper into this hellish world, we wonder how far will he go. If killing becomes the norm, he risks losing not only the shreds of humanity holding him together, but also the few others he holds dear. Messing with King Death means torture and execution for him, but also for anybody else on his radar. This includes his similarly devastated wife, who stays at home during his lengthy missions, and his benevolent faceless contacts. We know he means to do whatever it takes to find his daughter, but will he, can he do it, or will compassion be his downfall?
The father is a solid lead, and much of the enjoyment comes from watching him evolve. He’s relentlessly serious from the off, naturally, and leads a joyless existence in which he harbours guilt over his daughter’s abduction. At the time, he was busy sending an inappropriate email to a female colleague rather than watching his child play in the garden, but he regrets and acknowledges his flaws and the consequences. I like his hesitation and reflection, and his humanity, which is one of few beacons of hope that stop this whole reading experience from becoming too bleak. The recollections of his daughter’s abduction are shattering to read, which helps ensure our investment despite his slowly capsizing psyche. And while he may be becoming unstitched, which is perfectly understandable, will he become a monster himself?
“I will reduce them to ash.” The last sentence seemed to emerge from a recently discovered pit inside himself, and it was as if his conscious mind could not catch such utterances from this pit before they left his mouth.
Superb stuff, and it’s paragraphs like this that make us forget it’s just a very ordinary bloke saying and doing all of this, or certainly someone who was normal – and just one of us – a couple of years ago.
I love the world Adam Nevill has created for this ugliest of quests. The state of the country actually helps the father, and his early vigilante-esque encounters are barely investigated by the strained authorities. The heat and fear also conspire to keep people indoors and loathe to intervene. It’s a convincing global meltdown, and I actually think it lightens the tone of the novel as a whole. I’m not sure if this is deliberate, but as the main storyline is so grim, it may have been too harrowing with a standard contemporary setting. It might even have eclipsed the pitch blackness of “No One Gets Out Alive”. The apocalypse dilutes the nastiness with an sf tone that takes all this piled-on horror just far enough away from our own lives so that we can enjoy it. And it’s an outstanding story that deserves to be enjoyed, not just endured.
The pace is punchy with truly breathless moments, and it deftly hops from one important scene to another without any cumbersome bridges or links. For me, it only lagged once during a lengthy religious rant by a King Death acolyte. I got that it was all part of conveying the deranged lore of the cult, and the father’s frustration with it, but I was relieved when that particular drug-addled psychopath put a sock in it. Apart from that, it’s a refreshingly seamless read.
Like any abduction tale, “Lost Girl” harbours the question of whether the search will meet success. With a transient population, refugee saturation, kidnapping and trafficking on vast international levels, the needle in a haystack metaphor doesn’t even begin to cover it. Not to mention how to shake off King Death when (or if) the father is done. Surely such an average man shouldn’t get anywhere near his goal? Of course I’m not going to give any clues either way, but I found the finale very satisfying with a few pleasing surprises along the way.
This novel is faultless with regard to writing and evocation, and while Adam Nevill understands the power of explicit violence, he’s also master of the unseen shudder. For example, he cajoles the horror reader’s imagination into creating a snapshot of hell that might be the abducted girl’s existence, leaving us to chill ourselves without giving any details.
I couldn’t put “Lost Girl” down. There’s something for anyone who likes their books to grab them by the lapels, and plenty of layers to keep your subconscious busy. It’s a thriller if you want to take it that way, and also a mirror for our times with the pandemics, global warming and refugee crisis. But deep down, it’s an intense and extraordinary tale of human endeavour with a moral core that never completely loses its sense of hope, no matter how low the lights are turned down.
Hell’s waiting for you. Enjoy.