Burnt Paper Sky | Gilly Macmillan | 2015 | Piatkus | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book
Ben Finch is eight years old. He has yet to sleep without his comfort blanket and he adores his favourite teddy but, confident and happy, he’s just reached the stage where he doesn’t like to hold his mother’s hand within sight of the school gates. He’s growing up. So his mother Rachel gives in to his pleas and lets her son run ahead with his dog Skittle through the woods to the playground and swings. It’s no distance at all. And it gives Rachel a moment’s peace to think about what is most troubling her – her divorce from her husband John and his recent remarriage. But all it takes is a few moments. Rachel finds the playground empty, the swing gently moving to and fro. Ben and the dog are gone.
What follows is the trauma of a missing child, with all of the tension and distress, false hopes and desperate acts that this involves. Told from a future perspective, but without giving anything at all away, we are given two narratives. Rachel tells us what happened from moment to moment, driven to do so by the horrendous treatment that she received from the media following her completely understandable outburst of rage at a press conference. She wants us to know why she behaved as she did, what it’s like to get up and move around under the crushing weight of this unbelievable worry and distress. Rachel isn’t the only one affected. The other narrative comes from Jim Clemo, the detective in charge of the investigation, and takes the form of his notes written a year later for the police psychologist. Jim has had a breakdown. He needs to work through events for his own well being, so that he can sleep – and for the sake of his future career.
Throughout the book are other bits and pieces – transcripts of the psychologist’s interviews with Jim, newspaper reports, Facebook entries, blog posts, as well as extracts from books on the methodology of finding missing children. But as the hours and days pass, the greatest fears are those left unsaid.
Burnt Paper Sky is an utterly compelling read, a book that I did not want to put down unfinished. It is beautifully written. Both Rachel and Jim are fully realised figures, their portraits sensitively drawn by Gilly Macmillan. Neither is in a situation where we see them at their best – to say the least – and so it’s not important that we like them but it does matter that we believe them and understand what they’re going through. And we do, completely. Rachel, in particular, is magnificent. I hung on to her every word, feeling for her as family and friends move around her. As the police probe into her past and into these relationships, we learn more about Rachel than she would ever have wanted anyone to know (before she lost her son and these things became unimportant).
This is a novel full of mysteries and secrets, the greatest being the missing Ben but there are plenty of smaller puzzles, too, all showing how complicated lives can be once they are put under such intense scrutiny. We are placed in the heart of it, watching people unravel. Burnt Paper Sky gives us so powerfully and dramatically a taste of what this terrible trauma might be like, while making it imperative that we keep turning the pages to find out what happened.
I don’t want to give the impression that the book’s a distressing read – it isn’t. The time gap, knowing that events are being told to us from a future perspective, distances us to a more comfortable degree. More than anything, Burnt Paper Sky is a pageturner of the highest order and quality.
The novel gets its name from the contemplation of watching a piece of paper briefly burn against the sky. Its smoke, for an instant so intense, rapidly disappears, nothing is left. It’s a poignant metaphor for Rachel’s loss as well as a clue to the quality of Gilly Macmillan’s writing and the novel as a whole.