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by Theanna Bischoff

The third novel by Theanna Bischoff – whose debut, Cleavage, was shortlisted for the 2009 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book (Canada and the Caribbean) – is a literary/thriller hybrid that takes place in the immediate aftermath of a Calgary woman’s disappearance and over the years that follow. One night, Natasha Bell goes out for a jog and never comes home, leaving behind her pregnant teenage sister, her born-again Christian best friend, and an unassuming ex-boyfriend. The detective assigned to the case imagines it will be easy to crack, because everyone knows the ex-boyfriend is always the one whodunit. But Natasha’s story proves more complicated than his formulations.

Comprising a multitude of points of view and narrative forms – including interviews, answering machine messages, a transcript from a TV broadcast, a diary entry, blog posts, and online messages, plus chapters from the perspective of Natasha before her disappearance – the novel’s structure is all over the place and lacks the tautness and control of a tightly constructed thriller. It stumbles on the literary side as well, with some two-dimensional characters, too much exposition, and awkward metaphors.

These problems are most apparent when contrasted with the moments the story takes off. At points, Bischoff provides the perfect character detail, such as the ever-practical Natasha’s sister thinking, “I could always count on you to know the forecast.” (Natasha had been anxious to get her run in before it started raining.) Left includes some passages of lovely prose, particularly those featuring Abby remembering her sister and reeling in her grief.

Bischoff does succeed in building suspense and keeping it going. Notwithstanding the unfocused plot, the reader is kept guessing all the way through, and at one time or another, every character seems like a possible suspect. For this reason, the story never loses its essential interest, despite the structural and stylistic problems that pepper it.