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Apr/May 2009 Reviews & Interviews

Missing from the nursery

Little Face
Sophie Hannah.
Soho Press. 2006. 310 pp.
ISBN 0143114085.

Review by Kajsa Wiberg


Buy now from Amazon! Little Face sat on my desk for almost a year before I could bring myself to read it. Despite good reviews—some extraordinary—another story of a baby gone missing felt so... dreary. Once I dove into it, though, I regretted waiting so long. The story is chilling, intriguing, interesting, and totally addictive.

Alice is beside herself the first time she leaves the house without her newborn, Florence. But her mother-in-law, Vivienne, has given her an exclusive health club membership, and she is eager to activate it. She gets plenty of opportunity to regret this when she returns home to find her husband, David, asleep, and the baby in the nursery a stranger. Shocked and torn apart, she tries to retell the event to doubtful detective Simon Waterhouse, his even more doubtful superior, Charlie, and a still more doubtful David. They all seem to think she has gone mad or is suffering from postnatal depression. Why won't anyone take her seriously?

When a week later, Alice and the baby go missing, she gets her point across and sparks the interest of an indolent police squad noticeably distracted by inter-office affairs and distrust of one another. A more thorough look at the murder of David's ex-wife, Laura, shows that there's more to it than the brief glance they awarded it when it went down revealed. Sure, they found the guy—a mobster and drug addict—and they put him behind bars. But his motive is as shaky as his technique, not to mention the reason for his presence on the murder site in the first place. Did David kill Laura? If so, is he behind Alice's disappearance as well?

The harder they try to figure out what lurks beneath the immaculate surface of David's family, the longer the list of suspects grows. The story is further complicated by secret meetings between Simon and Alice—meetings that break Charlie's heart, though she still protects him and bails him out. What about Richard, David's dad, kicked out of the family by Vivienne and denied contact with his son ever since? And Laura's parents, still bitter about what they perceive as the execution of their daughter? And Mandy, the girl in the bed next to Alice's in the hospital, with the abusive boyfriend, who appears to have left the country out of the blue? Perhaps she swapped the babies to protect her own daughter!

Is Alice alive? Is Florence? And if so, where on earth are they?

With clues on every page and detours that all lead to different conclusions, the ending still managed to surprise me. And unlike far too many mystery novels, the language in Little Face is beautiful—comparable to any literary novel. Author Sophie Hannah tells the story from two different perspectives: Alice's and Simon's (with occasional ventures into Charlie's point of view), and she manages to give them both unique voices while still maintaining a story that is easy to follow. Little Face is not told in chronological fashion, but rather jumps around in the time interval between the baby swap and the moment Alice is found, using the night when Alice disappears as center point. To use different point of views, tenses, and depart from the conventional straight-line chronology may sound like a recipe for confusion, but Hannah pulls it off, making the story telling clear enough for the reader to focus on the whodunit. I loved how the points of view differ in far more than tense—Alice and Simon see things in totally different ways.

Without giving away the end for those who want to spend a day in Sophie Hannah's world, I would like to point out that Alice's participation in the drama is awesome. It's brilliant and calculated, and shows that she has more personal strength than the rest of her actions reveal. She surprised me without coming across as unrealistic, and I love it when characters do just that. I was so confused as to what exactly she was up to; I thought for a while that Alice had intentionally taken the wrong baby from the hospital and then arranged the swap. Overall, it is brilliant!

The one aspect that did fall a bit short for me was characterization. Until the very end, I was convinced that David's cruelty was sparked by guilt for stealing Florence. But given the ending, his sadism seems unnecessary; shoved in there solely to make the reader suspect him (although I do have to give the author credit for portraying one of the creepiest characters I have ever encountered with a minimal amount of physical violence). Furthermore, certain aspects of Vivienne's character lack credibility, most notably her interactions with her parents. She is not a bad character by any means, but she would certainly come across as more “real” if toned down just a hair. Also, it was never made clear how exactly she got Beer to confess and go to jail for Laura murder's.

Finally, the Charlie-Simon-Alice triangle does not feel complete—or like it gets the closure it deserves. Sure, Charlie solves part of the dilemma in her head, but it would have felt more satisfactory to see her act on it (as in writers love to write about what characters think, while readers love to read about what characters do). Additionally, it feels like we leave both Simon and Alice—the two most important characters of the story—hanging.

Also, it has to be said... I love how the terrifying picture Alice paints of Mandy's relationship, when we learn a bit more, turns out to be a fairly accurate portrait of her own.

With a gripping plot, unique if slightly exaggerated characters and language that beats most literary novels, Little Face is the perfect mystery to snuggle up with at night—unless you are prone to nightmares.

 

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