To create suspense, tension and all the other desirable elements of a thriller or mystery, some writers need to multiply their characters, crowd their pages with action and/or violence. In Stolen, Lisa Hinsley gives us just two central characters, one of whom is absent for long stretches, and a supporting cast of secondary characters (who are neither secondary, in terms of their importance to the main character, nor supporting, in the psychological sense).
This central character is Emily who, profoundly depressed by a double tragedy, decides to get away from it all, leaves home, with no warning to her parents, and travels to
I’m conscious of the need to avoid spoilers but the book’s blurb tells how she
meets a seemingly kindly, sympathetic older man who treats her well and, in the
end, reveals that he has a croft on a small island in Shetland where she can
find the peace and solitude she needs to still the turmoil in her mind.
And the rest of the book takes place there, with the man coming and going to bring her supplies but mainly with Emily at first loving the solitude and a way of life stripped of all the conveniences and distractions of today’s world. When she realises, however, that the man is effectively holding her prisoner there, the dynamic changes and most of the book chronicles, in her own voice, her struggle to survive and find a way back to the mainland.
It’s a very subtle study of character as the scales are at first lifted from her eyes but she manages to persuade herself that there may be other interpretations for the man’s behaviour. Eventually, she’s forced to recognise the truth and her plans become darker.
The man’s character, too, is conveyed in the deftest of strokes. While the reader is suspicious of him almost from the start, his words and actions, as perceived and conveyed by Emily, allow for other interpretations. He’s at times vicious, spiteful, uncompromisingly cruel to her, but he also seems to show concern, affection and even tenderness. It’s a very clever analysis of how we all want to mould reality to fit our own desires.
Amongst all this analysis, it’s important to recognise that Emily is a very sympathetic character. We see her weaknesses, her errors of judgement, but I wanted her to succeed, I wanted Ian, the man, to get his come-uppance. I admired her strength, was in awe of some of the things she coped with and, despite the usual need occasionally to suspend disbelief, I bought into her world. For her, it’s a journey to self-awareness; for the reader, sharing her days on the island, the fascination is in wondering how it will all end. And, at least in technical terms, the ending is a challenge. We know what happened, and we know the consequences of it all but to achieve it, Hinsley chooses a bold narrative shift that some may question. But the over-riding impression the book leaves is of having lived a powerful experience and been given many insights into the intimate thoughts of a real woman.