Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Looking for Charlotte - a thriller set in the Highlands by Jennifer Young

When I read the premise of the Looking for Charlotte, it made me think of the Medea myth, in which the mother kills her children, cooks them and serves them in a pie at dinner time to punish their adulterous father. The premise retains its shock value, because humanity still puts motherhood on the pedestal. The mother is always expected to sacrifice her own pride for the benefit of her children. Although, there are many women who use their children as tools of vengeance in more subtle ways. A modern mother may not kill her child and feed the flesh to the father, but she can still try to turn the child against the father, or compare the child to the father in a negative light. Still, most betrayed wives on the brink of divorce will try to shield their children from the moral and physical anguish. That's what our society based on Judeo-Christian morality expects from a woman.

In "Looking for Charlotte" it's the father who does the dirty deed. Alastair Anderson, a mentally disturbed father, kills his toddler daughter Charlotte and writes a cryptic note to the girl's mother. The cultural bias is that such atrocious deeds are somehow more understandable when committed by a man, because men are viewed as predators and abusers. You hear about men raping their daughters in the news.

In comes Flora, a lonely divorcee. Even though her own three children are grown and not in danger of being strangled by their natural father Danny, who is far from being a monster, she becomes imbued with a keen sense of solidarity with the dead girl's mother. Giving her closure becomes an apostolic mission. Still, her motives are not 100% altruistic. There is "something in it" for her - a much-needed adrenaline rush.

Flora's obsession with the investigation makes sense from the standpoint of psychological authenticity. When we are down on our luck, we always seek comfort in knowing that "someone has it worse" and "there are worse things in life than being middle-aged and divorced." I am guilty of that. Whenever I catch myself whining about my "dull existence", I surf the internet for horror stories, just to make myself snap out of my gloom. I suspect, many people do the same, though few would admit to it. Indeed, in the western world, about 50% of marriages fall apart. Divorce is something mundane. Child-killing is still shocking. So it's no wonder that a woman who is processing the dull ache of something as routine as divorce would grasp at the chance to jump-start her own nervous system by immersing herself into investigating such a grisly murder case.

The moors of Scottish Highlands make for a perfect setting for this brooding thriller. My main complaint is that the cover does not reflect the content of the book. It's too light, too sunny. The red coat looks out of place. A woman on a murder investigation mission would not be wearing something so conspicuous. Without knowing the content, I would've guessed it was a girl-power piece about a middle-aged woman defeating breast cancer and finding love in the arms of a fitness instructor.

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