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Book Review: Gone by Neil Root

The disappearance of Claudia Lawrence in 2009 generated an avalanche of media headlines, the majority of which were predictably salacious: according to the fourth estate the pretty 35-year-old was a maneater who got her kicks targeting married men. Neil Root’s book about the disappearance manages to dispel those lurid myths if nothing else.

When I say ‘if nothing else’ it’s not a throwaway phrase. Because beyond providing a ceaseless commentary of the thoughts of Mr Lawrence, his PR adviser and Ms Lawrence’s best friends, Gone does little more than recycle the bare bones of this tragic story. It’s pretty thin stuff.

Having established the scant details of the case – Ms Lawrence disappeared early one morning on the way to her kitchen job at the university of York – Root has virtually nothing else to add. The author does examine some subsequent hoaxes and tenuous links to other cases, but rather than genuinely relevant to the case under investigation such episodes always feel like an attempt to pad out the narrative.

Talking about padding out the narrative, there’s plenty of diversions and quotations from individuals involved with missing persons organisations. For example, a whole chapter is dedicated to Mr Lawrence’s campaigning work in this area and various parliamentary reforms in the pipeline which could support families better. As interesting as this topic might be, after a while such diversions do become wearing.

While short on actual events, the reader hears an awful lot from Ms Lawrence’s father. Insights from Mr Lawrence are indeed generously littered throughout a book which is essentially an elongated interview. His feelings about the loss of a loved daughter are precisely what you would expect of a distraught father: sadness, overwhelming sense of loss etc.

Root also includes the sentiments of Claudia’s girlfriends. Again, as might be expected there’s nothing ground-breaking here: they miss their friend terribly. Punctuating the book throughout, these fillers do little more than slow the narrative to walking pace. Less is usually more. But it’s the sheer volume of repetition which threatens to completely stall the book.

Did Mr Root have an editor I kept asking myself. If the reader is informed that Claudia lived four doors down from her local pub The Nag’s Head once, then he/she is reminded a hundred times. It’s a style of writing that runs a very real risk of alienating, almost as if the author has forgotten what he has previously written or has an eye permanently fixed on the word count. Either way after a while it grates.

How many times do we have to be told that John Sentamur is the Archbishop of York? The result of the padding and repetition means that by the half-way point Gone has effectively run out of steam. Mr Root has said all he has to say and that was never much in the first place. Yet somehow, he manages to stretch this out to 280+ pages.

As far as the narrative is concerned the problem is that Claudia Lawrence was very probably abducted by a random stranger. Thus, there never were any suspects and therefore no alibis to dissect which means the author has little in the way of raw material from which to work. By all accounts Miss Lawrence lived an unremarkable life in York despite what the gutter press might have imagined.

The disappearance of this attractive young woman was tragic and mystifying, but from a purely literary point of view it’s a case which never truly warranted an entire book. And I’m afraid it shows. Although I am loathe to throw in the towel however awful the book, in this case I couldn’t go on any further and bailed out at the two-thirds mark.