I’ve written about Michael Robotham before. Say You’re Sorry is the third of his books that I’ve read, all supplied by my son. In my opinion, this is the best of the three. By a strange quirk of coincidence, it is about two women who have been held captive for three years; I started reading it last weekend, before the story of the Ohio captives broke. The women in Robotham’s story are not being held ‘in plain sight’, however, but in an isolated building.
The story has two narrators, Joe O’Loughlin, Robotham’s now familiar lugubrious and slightly self-pitying, borderline misfit clinical psychologist hero and Piper Hadley, one of the two teenage victims, who manages to keep a diary throughout her captivity. Piper herself is a bit of a misfit and so lacking in self-confidence that she fails to realise that their captor distinguishes between her and ‘Tash’, the other captive, in ways that become vital to her survival.
This is a much more ambitious novel than the other Robothams I have read; both the plot and the character portrayals are at once more complex and more subtle. Robotham is still working on his trademark theme of the ‘woman at risk’, but these women are more than passive victims. Each has demons of her own that are unrelated to her captivity. There are a few jarring notes. Most conspicuous among these is (in my view) Robotham’s relatively weak power of conveying a sense of place. The book is supposed to be set in and around Oxford, an area with which I am familiar – it even mentions Branca, a restaurant in which I have eaten – but the descriptions do not convince. This is partly because the culture and language of the community from which Piper and Tash come does not seem very English. In both the norms and expressions that the people living there use (and, indeed, in Robotham’s choice of names like ‘Piper’ and ‘Augie’), they seem much more to belong to small-town America.
This is a minor, if recurrent, annoyance, however. I was gripped by this book. I did guess who the perpetrator was before a final twist in the plot revealed it, but only a few pages before he was unmasked. Robotham is particularly skilful at planting red herrings in Say You’re Sorry. The novel’s distinction doesn’t just come from the clever plot and the reader’s on-tenterhooks sympathy for Piper, however. It comes from the author’s success in getting inside the heads of both captives and captor in a totally convincing and believable way. There might have been a time when the plot itself could have been criticised for being far-fetched. Unfortunately, the stories of Elizabeth Fritzl, Natascha Kampusch, Elizabeth Smart (and now of Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight in Ohio who have just escaped from ten years or more of alleged imprisonment and rape by Ariel Castro) prove that Robotham’s plot is not only capable of happening in real life, but also relatively restrained. As for what has happened in real life, the truth has turned out far stranger than fiction.