With such a grim premise – the mysterious disappearance of Lauren, a young mother with a history of depression – Doug Johnstone’s Gone Again is an unsurprisingly tough, gritty urban thriller. The narrative focuses on Mark, Lauren’s despairing husband, and his attempts to get to the bottom of her vanishing whilst trying to take care of their young son.
Given this horrendous context, it’s somewhat unclear whether Johnstone then deliberately toys with the reader’s natural inclination for sympathy towards Mark. On the one hand his social faux pas (a subtle moment where he doesn’t realise a child wants him to get down from the wall he’s sitting on is elegantly observed) and knee-jerk decision-making serve to render a realistically desperate and bewildered man. Yet on the other hand, Mark’s (albeit occasional) history of lashing out violently at women could have benefitted from further investigation and is an alarmingly unresolved character trait. Perhaps this ambiguity serves the novel in the sense that the reader begins to question Mark’s role in Lauren’s disappearance, but it also serves to make the 250 pages in his company at best uncomfortable and at worst, infuriating.
Indeed, such thorny characterisation puts an awful lot of weight on the plot itself, and although admittedly its pacey, direct tone held my interest, by the end it felt as though I had waited for a plot twist that never actually arrived. The logic of this novel may well demand a skeletal starkness given its subject matter, but it’s difficult to immerse yourself in a world which is so unrelentingly mirthless: a glimmer of gallows humour could have gone a long way.
Although I’d like to read more of Johnstone’s work to discover the extent to which it really was the writing or merely the character I disliked, unfortunately, for me, Gone Again proved to be too much of a bad thing.