Lisa Unger’s FRAGILE is a kind of slow-burn crime novel. Set in a small town 100 miles from New York, the story is about the disappearance of a teenaged girl from the community. There’s a lot of character-based development, especially at the beginning, and for a good hundred pages you’re not entirely sure if the novel really is about a crime, or whether it’s a study of the personalities, relationships and backstories of the main characters. Indeed, for the first third of the book it seems as if the hunt for a missing girl is simply a loose structure to hang the novel on. This initial perception isn’t helped by the fact that the main character is a practising psychologist who spends a lot of time analysing those around her and herself.
But it is a crime novel, one with a very elegant and complex structure. The main players in the unfolding drama of the missing girl are all connected, either directly or indirectly, to the disappearance of another girl from the same community a generation earlier. In that case, she ended up dead, a fact which adds an extra layer of implied jeopardy to the new situation. The disappearance of the new girl (after an argument with her mother) is a typical case of a seventeen-year-old girl going AWOL, but as the town slowly wakes up to the possibility that she has been abducted or killed, the truth about the murder thirty years ago slowly surfaces.
The novel deals with issues of guilt, and how we are able to conceal it so well that it lies unnoticed, not forgotten, but on the outside of our lives, like something hidden at the back of a large, junk-filled attic where no one ever goes (an image used in the novel); the facts are all there, still nominally amongst us, close to our lives, but we allow them to fade almost entirely from memory. In FRAGILE it takes another potential murder to draw out the truth, and Lisa Unger does this incredibly well. We learn only gradually what happened thirty years ago, yet it doesn’t feel like a trail of cues any more than the hunt for the missing girl feels like a straightforward mystery, because by the time the plot is moving to its double resolution we’re heavily invested in the characters themselves (warning: you’re going to read the final chapters fast). The effect is strangely compelling: two mysteries to resolve, and a complex web of personal relationships that are about to be torn apart by the truth.
Didn’t like? Important dialogue was often interspersed with the internal thoughts/analysis of Maggie (the psychologist). In fact, I didn’t like Maggie much at all. I did understand her character, and empathised with her on many levels. But at the same time I wanted her to be a little more assertive. I think the novel could have done with a stronger person at its heart, rather than a massively tolerant one.