Jane Shemilt’s debut novel Daughter encapsulates every parents’ fear – the day that their child doesn’t come home. Jenny seems to have the perfect life – the perfect neurosurgeon husband, three high-achieving children and the perfect career – until her youngest child, 15-year-old Naomi goes to her school play one night and never comes home. As the hours turn into days and months, the police don’t seem to be getting anywhere, and Jenny is forced to re-examine her relationship not just with her daughter but the entire family. Fresh-faced, education-focused Naomi who apparently doesn’t like the taste of alcohol, doesn’t smoke and barely wears makeup is soon unravelled throughout the course of Jenny’s memories and the investigation into the disappearance as not being all she seems. The fact that her daughter has been keeping many secrets from Jenny is just as painful as her disappearance, and likewise, Naomi’s twin older brothers, Ed and Theo, seem to be hiding a few secrets of their own – and what of Ted, Jenny’s perfect surgeon husband?
As Jenny discovers more secrets about her daughter’s life, we see how she begins to see her own failings as a mother, and even the problems she has having with her career and marriage. I had a little bit of a gripe with the approach of this novel, which is intended to make us question the idea of parenting, although this perhaps may be to make the reader see the age-old question of whether a working mother can be a good parent – and the guilt that comes with this. Throughout, Jenny asserts that she has been a respectful mother who has given her children space and privacy, and yet there are glaring signs that this has gone wrong, her children have felt neglected, and that she doesn’t have a clue who her children really are. Again, there is a suggestion that it is never easy to know which is worse, being a ‘helicopter-parent’ or being a laid-back parent who gives their child too much freedom and independence.
The only thing which lets this narrative down is the structure – which alternates between the days leading up to and the immediate aftermath of Naomi’s disappearance, and a year later when Jenny is spending her Christmas in an isolated cottage, still searching for her daughter. While this is designed to explore memory and make us see scenes from difference points of time, it also was a little disappointing because it meant that every clue and lead found in the weeks following the disappearance led nowhere a year later. The Then and Now structure works for some novels but not this one – mainly because it makes the build-up slow and undermines the tension.
Without writing in any spoilers for the book, I will say that there are a lot of interesting twists and turns in the novel, although I wasn’t satisfied entirely with the ending of the story. A lot of other readers have agreed with me that the characters and their actions aren’t entirely believable, and that there are times when the characters don’t feel realistic in their actions. At times Jenny becomes a spoilt, middle-class trope for the modern parent who is too neglectful, which makes it a little harder to sympathise with her – yet it also seems that she is vilified so that she is made out to be a bad parent. This is also underscored by the fact that we never really meet the missing teenager herself – Naomi comes across as moody, secretive and mysterious by the people who think they know her.
Overall, this novel is fairly thought-provoking – can we ever completely know the ones we love? Jenny’s seemingly perfect life is only that on the surface, making us question whether it is possible to have it all – the perfect career, family and marriage. The general message of Daughter is that we don’t always know our families – particularly our teenage children – as well as we think we do.