The opening to MISSING JULIA makes for an intriguing hook. A very short prologue establishes the fact that Julia Seymour has something of a haunted history, and then the novel opens with an extended description of Julia’s preparations for her secretive flight. This immediately prompts questions as to why Julia is leaving, and why in such clandestine circumstances; what could such an ostensibly respectable woman such as Julia Seymour have done that would warrant such a dramatic departure?
Dunne establishes all this, and maintains Julia’s air of secrecy for a good two-thirds of the novel, by writing obliquely about the central issue. Characters Julia meets, most of whom are good friends, are persuaded to help her without asking why she needs help; again and again, Dunne slips away from the core issue by allowing Julia to reminisce about her time with William, or times she spent with her friends as a student doctor in UCD during the ’70s, or by a variety of other methods. Initially compelling, this tactic does become irritating.
The second strand of the narrative, that of William’s pursuit of Julia, is solidly constructed in the beginning. William was about to propose to Julia when she departed so abruptly, and is left bereft. A retired man, who writes thrillers, he has the time and resources to attempt to find her. In this way, he becomes the kind of character he writes about. As he tells his friend, Jack:
“To be truthful, I think I’m boring myself. I can’t be arsed with villains and police procedure - thrillers just aren’t thrilling me any more.”Less convincing, however, is William himself, particularly in his internal monologues. He is, not to put too fine a point on it, too good to be true. Most men finding themselves in his position would very probably have sulked for a few days and stamped around a bit, perhaps believing that Julia had thrown him over for another man. The fact that Julia has left the white queen out of position on the chess board is enough to convince William that things are a little more complicated than that (the thought of another lover never occurs to him, in fact), and is sufficient to tell William that Julia has left him a message beseeching him to follow her.
Dunne has a pleasingly light style, which is punctuated with deft observations. William, remembering the first time he met Julia, recounts it thus:
“It’s the memory that has been hurting at him all day, insisting that he unfold it, open out its pleats, regard all the glittering contents spread before him.”The single word ‘pleats’ is a winner here, suggesting that William is opening memories like old and fabulous maps.
Another pleasing aspect to the novel is that Dunne is unafraid to take on a big issue. While it takes some time for it to be revealed, euthanasia is for some time the word that dare not speak its name. Has Julia, the dedicated doctor, participated in the assisted death of her friend? If so, how does that square with her principles and philosophy, and with the Socratic oath?
Dunne doesn’t underplay the seriousness of euthanasia, nor of Julia’s plight, nor of Ireland’s shortcomings when it comes to confronting such ethical issues head-on:
“But the charge is still one of attempted murder. And Ireland is different anyway: this is yet another nettle that people will refuse to grasp. We’ve never faced up to our demons, or our shortcomings.”MISSING JULIA is for the most part an intelligent and challenging novel. I was ultimately disappointed, however, for the very reason that Dunne is obviously a very smart writer, and yet she glosses over a crucial issue early in the novel. In any such case of a woman going missing so suddenly, and without even saying goodbye to her daughter, the husband, or partner, would find himself suspected of her disappearance. Dunne, however, needs William to be free and mobile so that he can pursue Julia and bring to light her murky past, and so she neglects to address this issue head-on. That may well sound like a minor niggle, but given that the rest of the novel is predicated on William being above suspicion (none of Julia’s friends, as he meets them, seem to be overly concerned that William might have done away with Julia, or acted in a way that might have driven her to flight), it is in fact a rather large omission, and undermines Dunne’s narrative throughout.
If you can overlook that issue, however, MISSING JULIA is an entertaining page-turner with a very potent ethical issue at its heart. - Declan Burke
MISSING JULIA by Catherine Dunne is published by Macmillan.