Where Have You Been? by Wendy James is a psychological thriller based on the scenario of the main character, Susan, whose older sister went missing when Susan was a child. When Susan’s mother, who had a hard time dealing with her daughter’s disappearance, dies her lawyer carries out a provision in her will that half her estate will go to her missing daughter if she is located – and someone comes forward. But is it really her? And if it is, how will Susan and her sister’s relationship proceed from there?
It is the way that Wendy James handles the little details that makes the story come to life. In the following excerpt, Wendy captures the nuances of young Susan and her friend’s childhood innocence amidst the background of the major plot point of Susan’s sister’s disappearance.
‘Judy wants to lock the door even when she isn’t here,’ says Linda, ‘only Mum won’t let her. She’s allowed to lock it when her friends come, but. Except when it’s David, her boyfriend – and then they have to stay in the lounge room at all times, Mum says.’ She opens her eyes wide. ‘That’s so they can’t do it.’
Susan doesn’t ask what it is, doesn’t want to reveal her ignorance, instead searches for something to compare. ‘I’m not allowed in my sister’s room either,’ she says finally. ‘My sister’s missing and the police can’t let us in because it’s…’ she pauses, relishing the big, important sounding word, ‘evidence.’ This is no longer true, but that doesn’t matter, it has the desired effect.
‘My Mum says I’m not s’posed to talk about it.’ Linda is suddenly far less certain.
‘It’s okay. I don’t mind. I’m used to it now.’ Susan smiles graciously.
‘My sister says your sister’s probably been murdered, that she’s probably been adducted and cut up into hundreds of pieces with a big knife.’
Susan swallows. ‘She might have been adducted and murdered, but I think she’ll be home soon. Next week probably. She shrugs. ‘Anyway, that’s what the police say.’
‘You’re lucky, actually. Big sisters are a pain. I wish Judy would disappear.’ Linda says this carelessly, her interest rapidly waning.
However, as Susan grows older and her mother fails to cope with the situation, Susan’s innocence soon fades. Susan is forced to come to terms with her sister’s disappearance, although – or perhaps because – her mother can’t.
She grows up living with her father and staying with her mother on access weekends. The following excerpt gives an indication of the fraught mother-daughter relationship, rendered destructive by Susan’s mother’s inability to let go of her missing daughter. Again, it’s the little details that make all the difference; the mannerisms of speech, the physical behaviour, the focus of the narratorial observations and the balance of action/speech and description:
A Friday night – her mother’s access weekend. Susan is alone at the small dining table – it’s a card table really; her father laimed their old table, and her mother has yet to replace it – eating the meal that she prepared herself. Cheese on toast and tinned tomato soup. Her mother sits slumped in front of the muted television with a tumbler of wine and her cigarettes. She does not eat with her daughter. Susan thinks perhaps she doesn’t eat at all.
‘You know that we might never find out what’s happened to your sister?’ Her mother speaks quietly, her eyes not moving from the silent screen.
‘Yes.’ Susan knows the questions, knows the answers, doesn’t really have to listen. It’s always the same conversation.
‘You know that she might be dead.’
A long pause, then: ‘You know that this has destroyed me.’
Susan makes no response; what response can she make?
‘I was a good mother, Susan. I was young and it was hard for me, but I was always a good mother to her.’
‘They can’t take that away from me. Even if she’s alive somewhere, even if she never comes home, they can never tell me I was a bad mother. I was hard, sometimes, but you can’t always let your children have their own way, can you? You can’t let them make their own decisions. Sometimes they’re wrong, your kids. Wrong. Sometimes you have to be hard. But it’s never for yourself. You do it all for them. Look at you. You take notice of me don’t you? You listen to what I say, don’t you Susy? You take notice. You’re a good girl.’
She pauses, lights another cigarette, her hands tremble. Susan breaks the toast into small pieces, drops them one by one into the soup.
‘I’m a good mother to you, Susy. Say I am. A good mother?’
She still hasn’t turned her head towards her daughter.
Susan follows the script. ‘You’re a good mother,’ she speaks with difficulty, her mouth crammed with sodden toast. ‘A great mother. The best.’
Upon her mother’s death, Susan considers it crazy that a search for her sister must take place because her mother refused to face the facts that her daughter was dead. With her father already passed away and now her mother, her father’s second wife reveals a secret that shakes Susan’s certainty about the fate of her sister. When a woman turns up claiming to be Susan’s sister, Susan has a lot of questions in need of answers.
The words of Sophie Masson, quoted in the front of the book describing Wendy’s first novel Out of the Silence (which won the 2006 Ned Kelly Award for crime fiction), are just as apt a description of Where Have You Been?: “…beautiful yet disturbing, deep yet accessible, full of real, human characters but exploring wider social and moral questions, combining the pace and story of commercial fiction with the range and depth of literary fiction.”
It is Wendy James’s ability to simultaneously do story and character well in the right balance and capture the little nuances of her characters’ thoughts and behaviour which come together to make Where Have You Been? a compelling novel. This sort of balance is easier said than done and is difficult to teach.
More on Wendy James and her fiction can be found at www.wendyjames.com.au.
The Australian Literature Review