Vikki Wakefield is a prolific YA writer whose first foray into the realm of adult fiction has arrived in the form of a masterful psychological thriller. After You Were Gone is a gut wrenching read, particularly for parents, who can all too easily imagine the anguish of danger befalling a child. The protagonist, Abbie Morgan, is a character with whom the reader can easily empathise. She is a mother, stepmother, daughter, sister, friend and, most recently, newly-wed wife. But her life is polarised into the befores and afters that exist on either side of the traumatic abduction of her six-year-old daughter, Sarah.
The book begins with Sarah’s disappearance, then skips forward six years to the day of Abbie’s wedding. A chilling gift and a mysterious phone call signal the beginning of the end of Abbie’s newfound peace. The stranger on the phone claims to know what happened to Sarah, and promises to share the truth with Abbie, but only if she rises to a series of increasingly drastic challenges, keeping her motivation secret.
More calls ensue, and Abbie descends ever further into an intentional downward spiral of self-destruction leading to (what she hopes will be) a belated revelation. Concealing her reasons from her husband and stepchildren, secrecy and self-destruction become Abbie’s full-time occupations.
Abbie’s now narrative is broken up by her two other timelines: the thematically resonant before and after. The before pages tell the story of Abbie’s youth, volatile friendships and tentative motions towards adulthood, including her teenage pregnancy, and the first six years of parenthood. The latter reveals her post-abduction depression, and the unravelling of her recently rebuilt world as it hurtles towards the now.
The story weaves in and out of this triad of alternating timelines as Abbie falls away from certainty in pursuit of the knowledge she longs for. She is determined to discover the truth about her daughter’s disappearance, regardless of the price she must pay.
Abbie’s fraught relationships – particularly with her sister Jess, and their mother, Martine – are crisply fleshed out, without being bogged down in detail. The emotionally wrought premise might threaten a descent into sentimentality, but Wakefield never allows a hint of melodrama to creep into her carefully constructed world. Her prose is exact, revealing just enough and never too much. Bringing mother guilt and parental fears into a tangible reality, Abbie’s perspective is perceptively sharp, but oblivious to its own trail of deeply subconscious breadcrumbs.
Hard to put down and easy to get lost in, this book has twists beyond what one may expect. The reader should not be fooled into thinking they know where the story is leading. The ending (never fear, no spoilers here) is a revelation unto itself, with subtle but adequate foreshadowing.
Fast paced, perfectly plotted and brilliantly conceived, this is a chilling tale of identity, judgement, loss, determination and complex relationship dynamics. After You Were Gone will appeal to guilt-stricken adults, would-be detectives and fans of Sara Foster.
After You Were Gone by Vikki Wakefield
Publisher: Text Publishing
Pages: 368 pp
Publication Date: 5 October 2022