Whatever happened to Bethan Avery? – Review of ‘Dear Amy’ by Helen Callaghan

Margot Lewis is both a teacher at an exclusive Cambridge School and an Agony Aunt for the local paper, The Cambridge Examiner, a job she got after helping the son of the paper’s editor. Her own life is a bit of a mess, separated from her husband and suffering from episodes of panic attacks, and yet on a weekly basis she doles out advice to the paper’s readers.

Margot is used to receiving hoax letters, many of her students thinking it funny to try and get their fictional dilemma’s in print and so when she receives a letter from a girl claiming to be held prisoner in a dark basement she initially dismisses it as another fake. One of the school’s students had recently gone missing and so this could easily be just an infantile and ill-timed attempt to confuse matters, and yet something in Margot’s conscience makes her feel there is more to this than a simple hoax. There is only one problem, the letter’s alleged author is a young girl who had gone missing a long time ago and the police have no reason to suspect that they are any more than a hoax.

When more letters start to appear, and further investigation reveal startling similarities between the handwriting and that in a diary of the supposed author, Bethan Avery, Margot finds herself being drawn into a mystery which will have life changing consequences for many people.

‘Dear Amy’ is an intriguing read. Written in the first person, we see, feel and discover things at the same time as the protagonist Margot, a woman who has a lot on her mind and very few true friends in which to confide. There is always a sense of there being more to her than meets the eye initially and while she doesn’t necessarily strike me as the natural choice for an agony aunt, for reasons which become clear later in the book, she does show a sensitive side although her emotions are masked and then amplified by her personal circumstances.

In terms of supporting characters, they were relatively fleshed out although I’m not entirely sure why the soon to be ex-husband was drawn in other than to give a little bit of conflict for Margot and perhaps hurry along the unscrambling of her mind a little.

The premise of the story was good. Young girl goes missing, presumed a run-away (although we as readers know the opposite) stirring up memories of a missing persons case from long ago. Two young girls, both from Cambridge, similar backgrounds, similar situations although many years apart. Is Bethan Avery really back, or is this a wind up? If this is Bethan Avery does the same man really still hold her captive or has she escaped and if so, why doesn’t she make herself known to the police?

‘Dear Amy’ is a psychological thriller, but one for which I saw the twist coming from just under half way through. I suppose there was a possibility that Bethan could have been one of a few characters, and perhaps building on this possibility more may have helped keep the tension. That said, we did not have to wait long for this to be confirmed and it was then a case of rebuilding the past, working the old investigation in order to try and find the whereabouts of the new victim before it became too late for her. The story was interesting enough to hold my attention and a quick read, the starkness of the cold weather set against a traditional and sombre Cambridge perhaps feeding the lack of use of technology compared to most modern thrillers. There were a couple of moments I felt were a little much, but not enough to stop me finishing the book. There were no real shocks and, for me, no chilling moments that I may have liked to see. The scenes between kidnapper and victim were not graphic, somewhat muted, but you did get a sense of Margot being in jeopardy, and the side story of her youth and how she came to meet the nuns who changed her life was an interesting thread which ran through the book.

3.5 stars as I liked the fluent writing style.

I would like to thank Net Galley and publishers Penguin UK – Michael Joseph for the advance copy of ‘Dear Amy’ by Helen Callaghan in exchange for my review.