Things are pretty miserable for seventeen year old Cait, the principal narrator of Faye Bird’s novel. The death of her Dad, eighteen months ago, is still knife-sharp. He’d been the kind of Dad who could always make things right. Then he was gone – knocked off his bike by a car. Most of the time, she hates her Mum’s new boyfriend, Johnny; she isn’t looking forward to a couple of weeks with the two of them in the holiday cottage Mum’s booked on the Llyn Peninsula in North Wales. Nothing but sheep and mountains. Meanwhile, friends Mia and Jade may be only a text message away, but Mia’s soaking up the sun in Ibiza and Jade’s in Malta. Harlech isn’t a promising alternative.
Cait’s quite shy, but Marko, the boy staying next door with his Dad, turns out to be welcoming. He even seems to be a good listener, which Cait likes though at the same time it makes her nervous about the impression she’s making. Marko introduces her to his long-time local friends, Ifan and Hannah. They’re okay, though Ifan seems preoccupied while Hannah somehow implies she isn’t entirely pleased that Cait’s shown up. It’s clear that something happened the previous summer involving Marko, Hannah and Ifan. Whatever it was, it had to do with a girl called Alys whose face, Hannah is certain, is on a Missing Poster which has recently appeared all over town. The others aren’t so sure it’s Alys on the poster, especially as the missing girl is called Ceri. Cait feels very much the outsider in the group. During these early chapters, although nothing much happens by way of events and there’s a fair amount of inconsequential chat, readers are getting to know Cait’s character; she’s perceptive, vulnerable, self-critical – yet wanting to reach out to others if she can.
Then Bird switches time and pace as Hannah takes up the story. Her chapter is titled ‘Last Summer’, when Alys had burst into the lives of Marko, Hannah and Ifan, persuading them to join her on a day’s expedition into Snowdonia. At a lake in the mountains, she challenges them to take risks which could easily be life-threatening. The boys can’t resist her dare; reluctantly – and painfully – Hannah follows. That day triggers revelations about themselves and their feelings towards each other which disturb all their lives. From now on, the narrative shifts between past and present and between Cait, Marko, Hannah and Ifan. Now we learn why Ifan initially seemed so preoccupied. Up at the lake, Alys had confided in Ifan, telling him she’s lost her mother and step-sister in a car crash which she survived; now she’s living with a step-father with whom she shares nothing but loss, loneliness and despair. ‘Being alone,’ [Alys] said, ‘Losing everything, Not being loved. These are my monsters ….Things always go wrong for me.’ Ifan is drawn helplessly closer to her than he’s ever been to anyone. One day of intense experiences; and Alys is gone.
Those shifts in time and narrators mean that although Cait may not know what happened the previous summer, readers have seen more than she has, and so can recognise the similarities between the emotional desolation Cait and Alys have both suffered through the death of a loving parent. As the mysteries unfold, things become clearer for Cait about her new friends and about her own life. Bird’s handling of the complex structure is to be admired, as it reveals the increasing understanding between her small cast of characters. The tensions of the story lie with the psychological shifts, fed by only occasional dramatic incidents. Rightly, readers will surely feel, Bird avoids easy conclusions. There are lifetimes still to be played out.