Lisa Jewell’s novels follow the property developer’s mantra – Location, Location, Location. For Invisible Girl it is one of my favourite neighbourhoods in London, Hampstead, near Belsize Park, where some three decades ago I had the good fortune to be spending spring break visiting a friend. Most appropriately, she was sharing a flat with a psychoanalyst. Alternating sections are told by Cate, mother of two teenagers and wife of Roan Fours, a 50ish child psychologist; Owen Pick, a 30 something college lecturer who has never had a date, who lives opposite the Fours family; and Saffyre Maddox, a mixed-race fifteen-year-old who had been treated by Roan for self-harm. The first two characters’ stories are told in free indirect third person; Saffyre speaks in first person. The differing POVs confuse the reader because Saffyre is on a different timeline, with about a six-week lag.
Saffyfre seems fixated on her former therapist and shadows (stalks would be to strong) Roan, convinced he is having an affair with one of his colleagues, a younger woman named Alicia. Saffyre has taken to sleeping rough in the derelict garden outside the house where Owen lives. She befriends Josh Fours, as well as an urban fox. And on Valentine’s night, she is reported missing and the principal suspect is Owen Pick. He has just been sacked from the college for getting drunk at an end of term disco where he is supposed to have: ‘Splattered the girls with the sweat from [his] forehead. They all attest that it was a deliberate action and that you did it more than once when asked by the girls to stop.’ (We are not told how Owen was supposed to have done it – I can’t imagine.)
Worse, Owen found his way to an ‘Incel’ site online. This group actually exists and has been responsible for multiple murders. The term is supposed to mean ‘involuntarily celibate’ (they mean ‘abstinent’ but few people these days know that ‘celibate’ means ‘unmarried’ – Latin coelbs is a bachelor). In the old days I couldn’t imagine men who would advertise their lack of amatory success online, much less want to murder women they blame for this condition. Why don’t they seek professional assistance instead? Not only does Owen post some ‘rants’ online; he meets a shifty character named Bryn who gives him ‘roofies’ which Owen hides in the usual place, the back of the sock drawer. When Saffyre is reported missing and what is supposed to be blood found on the outer wall of the house Owen lives in, along with her mobile phone cover in the garden. Owen is arrested and charged with abducting Saffyre.
Whilst Owen is in jail being interrogated relentlessly by detectives, Saffyre (on an earlier timeline) befriends Roan’s son Josh and enlists him in a quest to find an attempted rapist who seems to be preying on girls in the area, and whom she thinks may be the same person who molested her sexually when she was ten. Meanwhile Cate vacillates between suspecting Roan and apparently being convinced her suspicions are unfounded. So, we have three questions Lisa Jewell has posed for us. Who is the mysterious person attacking women? What is going on with Cate and Roan’s marriage? And what happened to Saffyre and is Owen responsible?
As we expect of Lisa Jewell, the denouement answers all these questions neatly, tying the different plot lines into a tidy package containing a satisfying conclusion. But I must confess a major reservation. Most of us keen readers, and sometimes writers ourselves, of crime fiction think we are criminal law experts. I am very often appalled in novels at how often characters are arrested on the flimsiest of grounds, and such is the case with Own’s being arrested and charged with abducting (and presumably murdering) Saffyre. Though she’s missing from her uncle’s home, the police have no evidence of a crime. Though they tell Own it was her blood on the wall, we are told nothing about DNA evidence and as I believe results in Britain can take weeks, what grounds did they have for arresting Owen? His solicitor very remiss on that, as well as with other ‘evidence’ that proves nothing. I began to wonder if the police are reading my reviews. With Then She Was Gone I criticised the cops for being extraordinarily lax in their search for Ellie; they seem to have learned their lesson and this time they descend on Owen like the chorus of Furies in Aeschylus.
But despite some scepticism with the police procedures, I found Invisible Girl a most engaging combination of setting, characterisation, and plot that readers of Lisa Jewell will enjoy.