What She Knew
by Gilly Macmillan
on Tour December 2015
In her enthralling debut, Gilly Macmillan explores a mother’s search for her missing son, weaving a taut psychological thriller as gripping and skillful as The Girl on the Train and The Guilty One.
In a heartbeat, everything changes…
Rachel Jenner is walking in a Bristol park with her eight-year-old son, Ben, when he asks if he can run ahead. It’s an ordinary request on an ordinary Sunday afternoon, and Rachel has no reason to worry—until Ben vanishes.
Police are called, search parties go out, and Rachel, already insecure after her recent divorce, feels herself coming undone. As hours and then days pass without a sign of Ben, everyone who knew him is called into question, from Rachel’s newly married ex-husband to her mother-of-the-year sister. Inevitably, media attention focuses on Rachel too, and the public’s attitude toward her begins to shift from sympathy to suspicion.
As she desperately pieces together the threadbare clues, Rachel realizes that nothing is quite as she imagined it to be, not even her own judgment. And the greatest dangers may lie not in the anonymous strangers of every parent’s nightmares, but behind the familiar smiles of those she trusts the most.
Where is Ben? The clock is ticking…
Published by: William Morrow
Publication Date: December 1, 2015
Number of Pages: 467
UK Title: Burnt Paper Sky
“What an amazing, gripping, beautifully written debut. WHAT SHE KNEW kept me up late into the night (and scared the life out of me).”
— Liane Moriarty, New York Times bestselling author
“Tightly focused and fast-paced. You won’t rest until you really know what happened.”
— Lisa Ballantyne, author of The Guilty One
“Every parent’s nightmare, handled with intelligence and sensitivity, the novel is also deceptively clever. I found myself racing through to find out what happened.”
— Rosamund Lupton, international bestselling author of SISTER
“This accomplished, intelligent debut should come with a warning-it’s completely addictive. A nail-biting, sleep-depriving, brilliant read.”
— Saskia Sarginson, author of The Twins
“Heart-in-the-mouth excitement from the start of this electrifyingly good debut…an absolute firecracker of a thriller that convinces and captivates from the word go. A must read.”
— Sunday Mirror
“One of the brightest debuts I have read this year – a visceral, emotionally charged story….heart-wrenchingly well told and expertly constructed, this deserves to stay on the bestseller list until Christmas”
— The Daily Mail
“A terrific debut”
— Reader’s Digest
“A very clever, tautly plotted page turned from a terrific new writer”
— Good Housekeeping
Book Formats: Print for US or Edelweiss
Hosting Options: Review or Showcase
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Read an excerpt:
In the eyes of others, we’re often not who we imagine ourselves to be.
When we first meet someone, we can put our best foot forward, and give the very best account of ourselves, but still get it horribly wrong.
It’s a pitfall of life.
I’ve thought about this a lot since my son Ben went missing, and every time I think about it, it also begs the question: if we’re not who we imagine we are, then is anybody else? If there’s so much potential for others to judge us wrongly, then how can we be sure that our assessment of them in any way resembles the real person that lies underneath? You can see where my train of thought’s going with this. Should we trust or rely on somebody just because they’re a figure of authority, or a family member? Are any of our friendships and relationships really based on secure foundations?
If I’m in a reflective mood, I consider how different my life might have been if I’d had the wisdom to consider these things before Ben went missing. If my mood is dark, I find fault in myself for not doing so, and my thoughts, repetitive and paralysing, punish me for days.
A year ago, just after Ben’s disappearance, I was involved in a press conference, which was televised. My role was to appeal for help in finding him. The police gave me a script to read. I assumed people watching it would automatically understand who I was, that they would see I was a mother whose child was missing, and who cared about nothing apart from getting him back.
Many of the people who watched, the most vocal of them, thought the opposite. They accused me of terrible things. I didn’t understand why until I watched the footage of the conference – far too late to limit the damage – but then the reason was immediately obvious.
It was because I looked like prey.
Not appealing prey, a wide-eyed antelope say, tottering on spindly legs, but prey that’s been well hunted, run ragged, and is near to the end. I presented the world with a face contorted by emotion and bloodied from injury, a body that was shaking with grief and a voice that sounded as if it had been roughly scraped from a desiccated mouth. If I’d imagined beforehand that an honest display of myself, and my emotions, however raw, might garner me some sympathy and galvanise people into helping me look for Ben, I was wrong. They saw me as a freak show. I frightened people because I was someone to whom the worst was happening, and they turned on me like a pack of dogs.
I’ve had requests, since it was over, to appear again on televi- sion. It was a sensational case, after all. I always decline. Once bitten, twice shy.
It doesn’t stop me imagining how the interview might go though. I envisage a comfortable TV studio, and a kindly look- ing interviewer, a man who says, ‘Tell us a little about yourself, Rachel.’ He leans back in his chair, which is set at a friendly angle to mine, as if we’d met for a chat in the pub.The expres- sion on his face is the sort that someone might make if they were watching a cocktail being made for them, or an ice-cream sundae if that’s your preference. We chat and he takes time to draw me out, and lets me tell my side of the story. I sound OK.
I’m in control. I conform to an acceptable view of a mother. My answers are well considered. They don’t challenge. At no point do I spin a web of suspicion around myself by blurting out things that sounded fine in my head. I don’t flounder, and then sink.
This is a fantasy that can occupy long minutes of my time. The outcome is always the same: the imaginary interview goes really well, brilliantly, in fact, and the best thing about it is that the interviewer doesn’t ask me the question that I hate most of all. It’s a question that a surprising number of people ask me. This is how they might phrase it: ‘Before you discovered that Ben had disappeared, did you have any intuition that something bad would happen to him?’
I hate the question because it implies some kind of dereliction of duty on my part. It implies that if I were a more instinctive mother, a better mother, then I would have had a sense that my child was in danger, or should have done. How do I respond? I just say ‘No.’
It’s a simple enough answer, but people often look at me quizzically, brows furrowed in that particular expression where a desire to mine someone for gossip overwhelms sympathy for their plight. Softly crinkled foreheads and inquisitive eyes ask me, Really? Are you sure? How can that be?
I never justify my answer. ‘No’ is all they need to know.
I limit my answer because my trust in others has been eroded by what happened, of course it has. Within many of my relationships doubt remains like slivers of broken glass, impossible to see and liable to draw blood even after you thought you’d swept them all away.
There are only a very few people that I know I can trust now, and they anchor me to my existence.They know the whole of my story.
A part of me thinks that I would be willing to talk to others about what happened, but only if I could be sure that they’d listen to me. They’d have to let me get to the end of my tale without interrupting, or judging me, and they’d have to under- stand that everything I did, I did for Ben. Some of my actions were rash, some dangerous, but they were all for my son, because my feelings for him were the only truth I knew.
If someone could bear to be the wedding guest to my ancient mariner, then in return for the gift of their time and their patience and their understanding, I would supply every detail. I think that’s a good bargain. We all love to be thrilled by the vicarious experience of other people’s ghastly lives after all.
Really, I’ve never understood why we haven’t thought of an English word for Schadenfreude. Perhaps we’re embarrassed to admit that we feel it. Better to maintain the illusion that butter wouldn’t melt in our collective mouths.
My generous listener would no doubt be surprised by my story, because much of what happened went unreported. It would be just like having their very own exclusive. When I imagine telling this fictional listener my story, I think that I would start it by answering that hated question properly, for the first time, because it’s relevant. I would start the story like this: When Ben went missing I didn’t have any intuition. None whatsoever. I had something else on my mind. It was a pre-occupation with my ex-husband’s new wife.
Gilly Macmillan grew up in Swindon, Wiltshire and also lived in Northern California in her late teens. She studied History of Art at Bristol University and then at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. She worked at The Burlington Magazine and the Hayward Gallery before starting a family. Since then she’s worked as a part-time lecturer in A Level Photography and a full-time mum.