It’s probably every parent’s worst nightmare: your child just doesn’t come home one day. That’s the premise of Jane Shemilt’s debut The Daughter.
Jenny is a successful family doctor in Bristol. She’s married to Ted, also a physician. Together they parent twins, Ed and Theo, 17, and Naomi, 15. Life is busy for the family, which means that sometimes things slip through the cracks. Pretty much every parent can relate to that. Things are particularly hectic right now because Naomi is starring in her school’s production of West Side Story, and she is always dashing off.
But on the night before the last performance, Naomi doesn’t come home. She doesn’t respond to her mother’s frantic phone calls. She’s not at the theatre or the place she’d told her mother she’d be. She’s not with her friends.
The Daughter is a page-turner, for sure, but it is also a meditation on modern marriage, parenting, and the fine balancing act of having a career and a family. Jenny is so convinced that she understands her daughter, her sons, her marriage, but it turns out there are cracks everywhere. Jenny feels blindsided by her daughter’s disappearance and by the fissures which suddenly appear in her domestic life.
If I was asked, I would say she was happy, that Ted and I were as well. I would say we were all perfectly happy.
The novel’s narrative isn’t straight forward. We are given glimpses into Jenny’s life just before Naomi leaves, and then several months later when she has taken herself to Dorset, to the family’s cottage. In these passages, we see how Naomi’s disappearance has affected Jenny and those around her. It’s not that Jenny’s life has come to a complete standstill, but certain aspects of her life have been derailed. She has not given up all hope that Naomi will be found and her grief is palpable.
But it not only Jenny’s grief that drives the narrative. Her husband also suffers. “I look for her everywhere I go,” he tells Jenny months after Naomi’s disappearance. “Don’t give up,” he tells her. “Don’t ever give up. I still think we’ll find her.” Jenny’s sons also suffer under the horrible weight of this loss.
Shemilt handles all their grief and a plot that might have proved unwieldy with a great deal of finesse. I raced to the end, which was both heartbreaking and unexpected.