I bought The Daughter right on the back of having read and loved What She Knew. What She Knew, by Gilly Macmillan, had opened my eyes to a genre that I had thought, as a parent, would be impossible to enjoy, namely the missing child story. For years I had steered clear of any such books or films embodying, as they do, every parent’s worst nightmare. The other thing that was odd for me, was that both of these books were set in the city of Bristol, where I went to school. Surely they couldn’t both be great reads, could they? However, if they were not great stories, then how exactly had they come to be published in the US and to be featured quite prominently in my local bookshop?
The Daughter, addresses the worries of every working parent: is it really possible to have it all? For years the media has gone back and forth on this issue until every parent who has ever held a job, no longer feels they know what is right or wrong and as a consequence believes that no matter what they are doing, somehow they are screwing things up. Not quite so for Jenny, a successful family practitioner and mother of three, in Shemilt’s debut novel. Infact Jenny is that rare breed of parent who thinks that she has it all in control, until one terrible day, she doesn’t. Shemilt reminds us carefully, each step of the way, that how we interpret the events and actions around us, might not be a truthful portrayal of what is actually happening in our own homes.
Naomi is, at 15, the youngest of three teenage children. Her twin brothers are on the cusp of heading to college and she appears to be relishing her role as Maria in the school adaptation of West Side Story. The problem is, that Naomi’s life is full of secrets and whilst pursuing her career as a doctor, Jenny her mother, appears to be missing much of what is going on in her own home. The Daughter oscillates between the time of Naomi’s disappearance and twelve months further on when Jenny, broken by the dismantling of her family life, has moved to the Dorset coast, still desperately trying to come to terms with what happened to her daughter. Shemilt unfolds the story based on Jenny’s journey, allowing us to see from the mother’s perspective how things went so badly wrong. As a reader we are tirelessly looking for clues to the disappearance amongst what remains of Jenny’s family life.
As a parent of two, this book resonated strongly with me. Although my children are younger than Jenny’s, already I am able to see how busy family life can get. The Husband and I have made many compromises along the way, to ensure that we are always around for our children, but what we wish for as parents and the privacy that growing children seek is often a difficult balance to maintain. For Jenny, she is unable to escape the nightmare that enfolds her family, with every one of her family relationships being dismantled to greater or lesser degree. As if that were not sufficient, she is a character who ends up feeling that she has not only failed her family but also those patients that she saw in her professional life.
For those of you not in a book club already, this is one of those books that you are going to be begging your friends to read, if for no other reason than to discuss the ending over a bottle of wine or cup of tea. Jenny is a fabulous character, sometimes unlikeable, always human and frequently flawed, but to the last page, you are on her side. We, like Jenny, need resolution and with this book, Shemilt certainly delivers. I spent days absentmindedly daydreaming about the ending of this story and indeed, it has taken me weeks to put fingers to keyboard, in order to strike the right note. I can assure you that The Daughter is the most fabulous book from beginning to end and that, irrespective of the beverage you enjoy, the discussion will be fabulous.