Left, by Theanna Bischoff
NeWest Press, 323 pp., $19.95
On the surface, this is a suspense novel about the disappearance of a young nurse in Calgary. Has she been murdered, as seems likely? Or have the mounting pressures in her life led her to escape to a freer existence?
The mystery is peeled like an onion, in a sure-handed and thoroughly entertaining read.
It’s a meticulously crafted story. Time and individual perspectives shift constantly, but all the separate pieces fit together neatly.
They also make up a story that’s more than just another mystery.
A number of classic crime novels — like those by Ross Macdonald and K.C. Constantine — see detectives solve murders by unearthing family secrets and deceptions.
Bischoff turns the formula inside out. The mystery of Natasha Bell’s disappearance is the entry point for what is very much a story of her family and friends, her relationships with them, and their relationships with one another.
We’re taken on a journey through connected lives. The mystery of the disappearance becomes almost secondary but always looms in the background.
The people closest to Natasha are enough to make anyone want to escape them — a former boyfriend who makes Hamlet look decisive; a younger half-sister who is long on wilfulness and short on impulse control; a strongly religious friend who is long on impulse control and desperately short of the wilfulness needed to take control of her life; assorted others, nearly all with highly visible and largely believable flaws.
But they all share a connection that goes beyond their relationship with the missing person.
All these characters have been left behind by the disappearance.
It gradually emerges that all have been left in other ways. Their lives are marked by abandonment by spouses, friends and parents. Natasha Bell is not entirely innocent of leaving people behind despite her own suffocating memory of her mother having walked out on the family when she was a girl.
The title takes on greater significance as the pages turn. Nearly everyone is “left” in some way. And the mystery at the core of the book becomes something more than just finding out what happened with Natasha Bell; the overriding question becomes whether the endless ricochets of abandonments can ever be stopped.
There’s another way to read the highly ambiguous title. The people around Natasha, and those drawn into the years-long search for her, are not really “left” behind at all. While she is physically gone, the memory of her becomes central to their lives. It is always with them.
In a way, that repeats what Natasha herself has experienced. Her mother walked out of her life. Yet the memory of her mother, and the mystery of why she left, clings to her endlessly.
A small number of characters may be a little too broadly drawn for some readers. Two plot points stretch plausibility about to its limits. But overall, it’s an impressive performance, one of the more accomplished and satisfying novels from an Alberta author in the last several years.
Available at bookstores and from standard online sources.