I first read this book back in 2013, around the time I moved here, and I can still recall the creepy feeling I got from it back then. I could all too easily imagine the premise of the story: how the protagonist tries to follow someone’s traces throughout Europe and how he gets increasingly unhinged as a result. I was all the more freaked out by the fact that I knew some of the places mentioned in the novel, and they appeared to me in this book just as unfriendly and unknowable as they appeared to the protagonist.
The protagonist of the novel is Scully, a friendly and mild-mannered nice-guy, who spent the previous years with his wife, Jennifer, and their daughter, Billie moving around Europe in search of a good livelihood. What this really meant was that Scully worked day and night, while his wife – sensitive, artistic and hailing from supposedly aristocratic stock – tried to realize her potential – without any apparent success.
At the beginning of the story, though, it seems that the tiring and frustrating years on the road are almost over, and the family is ready to settle down. They bought their future dream home in Ireland, and the only thing left to do is for Scully to renovate the derelict house while Jennifer and Billie go back to Australia for a short while to tie up the loose ends. Things seem to go well – the house gets nicer by the day, and according to the telegrams, Jennifer and Billie just can’t wait to finish up their Australian business and move into their new home. On the big day, however, only 7-year-old Billie gets off the plane, and she’s unable to express what had happened to her mother. So Scully, half out of his mind with worry, and Billie, locked into a shocked silence, set out to find Jennifer.
Father and daughter visit all the places where Jennifer might be, from Greece through Paris to Amsterdam, and of course their mad trip around Europe is partly an inner journey, and at each step, some kind of “truth” is revealed for Scully: things he might have suspected earlier, had he not fooled himself for years with the idea that despite all the difficulties, his life with his adored Jennifer is basically perfect. During the trip, Scully reaches the edge of his sanity while he’s trying to come to terms with the idea that what he considered to be a happy family life was perhaps something else entirely.
Tim Winton masterfully depicts both Scully’s unsettled and helpless state of mind, and that creepy sensation when everything and everyone – so familiar, trustworthy and friendly earlier – suddenly turns against you. Because this is what happens here: the small Greek island, where Scully used to feel safe and happy, now resembles a prison, not a home; the old friends he contacts in the hope of finding something about Jennifer’s whereabouts pretend they know nothing (or perhaps they really don’t know anything?); and even Jennifer herself – even though she leaves occasional clues, as if she were hoping to be found – behaves in an alien and hostile manner.
And even though at first it seems that the question is what happened to Jennifer, as we get nearer the end, this becomes less and less important: the “real” Jennifer gives way to the idea of Jennifer, that increasingly blurry image Scully tries to find, while not even being sure anymore whether he really wants to find it, or if it’s only his stubborn and desperate obsession with an ideal that urges him to move on and on.
Of course I won’t describe the end of the story. Suffice it to say that this strange novel – a combination of a family drama, a crime story, a thriller, and a philosophical work pondering metaphysical questions – doesn’t end in a soothing way. What it ends with is a sense of unease, a sense of fear induced by the realization how quickly the familiar can become unfamiliar, and how easy it is to get to the edge, in every sense of the word.