When I first heard about 99 Red Balloons, I have to admit to being more than a little bit intrigued. So when I got the chance of an early read via Netgalley, I jumped at it, and boy am I glad I did. I’ll tell you a little (or a lot) of why that is in just a moment, but first up, the all important book bits.
The Official Book Blurb
Two girls go missing, decades apart. What would you do if one was your daughter?
When eight-year-old Grace goes missing from a sweetshop on the way home from school, her mother Emma is plunged into a nightmare. Her family rallies around, but as the police hunt begins, cracks begin to emerge.
What are the secret emails sent between Emma’s husband and her sister? Why does her mother take so long to join the search? And is Emma really as innocent as she seems?
Meanwhile, ageing widow Maggie Taylor sees Grace’s picture in the newspaper. It’s a photograph that jolts her from the pain of her existence into a spiralling obsession with another girl – the first girl who disappeared…
This is a gripping psychological thriller with a killer twist that will take your breath away.
When someone releases a debut psychological thriller, I have to admit to reading with more than a little bit of trepidation. This is a very popular genre and standards have been steadily rising, bit by bit, book by book, as have reader expectations. But… Wowsers. I am very happy to say that Elisabeth Carpenter met every one of my expectations when it comes to this genre, and then some. This is a stonkingly assured and gripping debut that I would happily recommend to anyone.
Now this is a very hard book to talk about as there are elements of it which kind of put me in mind of the movie, Fight Club. The first rule of 99 Red Balloons is, don’t talk about the plot of 99 Red Balloons. It has an amazing plot that you really want to talk about, but people need to have read the book first, if that makes sense. What you need to know about the plot is very much contained above. Eight year old Grace has gone missing, seemingly taken while on a very short walk home from school. The rest of the story is focused upon her family and the impact her disappearance has upon them and widow, Maggie Taylor, who is emotionally affected by Grace’s story as her own granddaughter went missing many years before. And that’s all I’m saying.
This was such a cleverly constructed story. So many secrets being kept, by both Emma and Matt, Grace’s parents. Neither has been entirely honest with the other, both worried that something they have done may have led to Grace being taken. While seemingly rock solid as a couple, they are being torn apart by the loss of their daughter and the way in which the author portrays this feels authentic and at times moving. The shift from anger and determination to absolute despair. They are both strong, but crumbling and in desperate need to support.
And this is where we meet Stephanie, Emma’s sister. She is at Emma’s side throughout the whole drama, undeniably close to her sister as her son, Jamie, is with Grace. She is perhaps not as strong as her sister and yet since childhood she has been there to protect Emma. Perhaps half of the story is told in her voice and we are privy to her dreams, nightmares even, and her fears. There is something altogether claustrophobic about Stephanie’s dreams, but we are never quite sure what.
Maggie was an interesting character. In her later years, her world has continued to get smaller ever since the loss of her granddaughter Zoe. A widow, she only has one true friend and her mind always turns to Zoe whenever she hears of another lost or missing child. I could really feel a kind of sympathy for Maggie, a woman who has had her life ripped apart and to whom, it appears, the truth may never be revealed. She had a quiet strength about her, a determined nature which kept her on her path, even if the easy option would have been to give in and be with her family. You had to admire her strength.
And then there are two more voices – the abductor and the missing child. All four distinct voices, all tinged with their own sadness, their stories unique and yet set to converge in the most shocking of ways. And it is a very clever ploy used by the author here. I kind of had a suspicion about one element of the story, but the way in which is was executed was so skilful, so unexpected, that it truly made me smile. And argghhhh. Give me a nudge when you’ve read the book for yourself and we can have a chat about it.
For a debut thriller, this was a cracker and I cannot wait to read more by the author. The pacing was just right, the moments of tension dotted throughout perfectly timed to keep me as a reader on the hook. I had to keep reading. I wanted to know more. I wanted to be proven right (and wrong) and I wanted to be surprised. Most of all, because from the very first page Elisabeth Carpenter had me engaged and invested in the fates of all of the characters involved, I wanted to know everything would work out okay. I can’t say that I loved all of the characters all of the time. Considering a child was missing, some of them were unbelievably selfish in protecting themselves first and Grace second. But you could not help but feel for Matt and Emma, suffering as they did with Grace’s absence, and for the impact that the revelations yet to come had upon the lives of those around them.
Elisabeth Carpenter could have taken an easy option at the end. Made everything all sweetness and light, a perfectly happy, Walton’s style ending and yet she chose not to, a very wise move. It made what happened ultimately more believable, more authentic, and all the more heart wrenching for it. Loved it.
My thanks to Publishers Avon Books for the advance copy of 99 Red Balloons via NetGalley. It is released on 24th August and is available from the following retailers.