The Vanishing of Margaret Small by Neil Alexander

Today I’m sharing my thoughts on The Vanishing of Margaret Small by Neil Alexander. My thanks to publisher Embla Books and to Tracy Fenton of Compulsive Readers for the copy of the book. Here’s what it’s all about.

Source: Advance Reader Copy
Release Date: 16 November 2022
Publisher: Embla Books

About the Book

Meet Margaret Small: 75, plain spoken, Whitstable native and a Cilla Black super fan. Shortly after the death of her idol, Margaret begins receiving sums of money in the post, signed simply ‘C’.

She is convinced it must be Cilla, but how can it be? To solve the mystery of her benefactor Margaret must go back in her memories almost 70 years, to the time when she was ‘vanished’ to a long-stay institution for children with learning disabilities.

An absorbing and page-turning mystery with a dual timeline, The Vanishing of Margaret Small takes readers into a fascinating past, and introduces an unforgettable literary heroine.

My Thoughts

The Vanishing of Margaret Small is a poignant, thought provoking book that contains both moments of humour and sadness, and a truly memorable heroine in the eponymous Margaret Small.

Told from the point of view of Margaret, this is a dual timeline story which takes us into Margaret’s difficult and emotional upbringing in a ‘long stay institution’, and her present life as a seventy-five year old, Cilla loving pensioner living her own life in Whitstable. There is a small element of mystery that surrounds the present day by way of a number of letters, addressed to Margaret and signed, simply, ‘C’. Margaret has her own theories about who is sending the parcels and letters, and the chapters from her past contain some very key clues as to why she is so absolutely certain she knows who C is.

I really liked the character of Margaret. Illiterate and perhaps a little slower in whit than your typical heroine, she has the kindest of hearts and a very simple, but happy, outlook on life. The more we learn of her past, the easier it is to understand her personality. And it is more with understanding than sympathy that I found myself drawn to her. The author has done a brilliant job of portraying her character, and each simple interaction that she had brought a smile to my face, but also highlighted the difference between those who are understanding and tolerant of people who might be a little different, and those who are demonstrative about their prejudices. It is certainly one to make you think.

The difference between the sympathetic and the intolerant is never more obvious than in the chapters set in Margaret’s past, where she is a long term resident of St Mary’s, a home for people with physical and learning disabilities that sought less to help prepare the residents for their place in society, as to hide them away. There is no attempt to make Margaret’s life better, to help her with her literacy challenges. Taken there as a very young girl, St Mary’s is all that she knows, her friends there her only family.

The abuse, the lack of care shown by the staff, one nurse in particular showing a truly abhorrent attitude to all of the patients in her care, are all heartbreaking and often difficult to read, and yet truly believable. Neil Alexander has created that sense of fear and confusion perfectly, but balanced it carefully so as to not make the story too dark. It is Margaret’s infectious and ultimately positive personality that helps to keep the story lighter, and for me that was key in engaging me as the reader. Whilst we know there is life outside of St Mary’s, it was good to see that her spirit was never broken, in spite of all she endures.

This is a very timely novel, with one of it’s key themes so relevant it has a kind of ‘ripped from the headlines’ feel about it. Margaret’s innocence is refreshing, but it is also her undoing, at least as far as her time at St Mary’s. And yet, where this could be a very bleak story, it is actually a heartwarming novel, watching Margaret navigate the relationships with various friends who enter her life, however fleeting, and seeing the way in which there are still some people around her who treat her with respect and have her very best interests in mind.

The ending was beautifully written, and the resolution to the mystery of who is sending the letters, whilst still tinged with sadness, also brings a while ray of hope and sense of a new beginning for Margaret, one she was very long overdue. I’m definitely glad to have read this book.

About the Author

Much of the inspiration for Neil Alexander’s debut novel, ‘The Vanishing of Margaret Small’, came directly from the voices of people with a learning disability, and the incredibly moving first person accounts of living in long stay institutions, which he heard while working for the UK charity Mencap. Neil, who has a Masters degree in English Literature from the University of Kent at Canterbury, began his career working in health journalism. Originally from Northern Ireland, he now lives in the seaside town of Whitstable in Kent. He currently teaches English part-time and is working on his second novel.

5 thoughts on “The Vanishing of Margaret Small by Neil Alexander

    1. Margaret is such a lovely character. Not always easy to read but sadly very relevant and it has me really hoping that something good came for her by the end. So glad I read it


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