Kayla sets of to deliver a pizza, a normal part of a normal job. She never returns, leaving behind a few scattered pizza boxes on the forest floor and no answers. Drew, who took the fateful order, remembers nothing bar an unmemorable voice that asked for an unappetizing pizza and an altogether different girl. Gabie, having swapped shifts with Kayla, swiftly realises that she has narrowly escaped Kayla’s fate. Because Gabie is the other girl, the one so eagerly requested, the girl whom Kayla replaced. Whoever took Kayla really wanted Gabie and no-one has any idea of where either Kayla or her abductor are. As the local community slips into a morass of guilt and suspicion, Gabie and Drew struggle with uncertainty and fear. Where is Kayla? Who took her? And does he still want someone else?
Both Gabie and Drew are characters who seem to keep themselves to themselves. Despite being from opposite sides of the tracks, they are fairly similar. Gabie, academically smart, with loving if largely absent parents blends into the background of life effortlessly. While pleasant, she seems to have no real friends although she clearly enjoys working with the ebullient Kayla. She is quick to admit – and not really bothered by – her plainness and could easily have been a fairly dull character were it not for the fact that she hasn't gone unnoticed by everyone. Her guilty reaction to Kayla’s disappearance is extreme and verges, in fact, on real instability. Her utter conviction that Kayla is still alive is borne of guilt, yes, but also of fear and both this and her sudden attachment to Drew are completely understandable.
Drew himself is a sympathetic character. Struggling with a meth-head, kleptomaniac mother at Pete’s Pizza because he has to, trying to keep his head above water for a future that has already given up on him. Again, he has few friends but is well liked at work and the guilt he feels on being the last person to see Kayla before she disappeared, indeed on being the one who he perceives sent her to her probable death, is palpable throughout. He clearly liked Kayla a lot but he’s never really paid much attention to Gabie. Now, thrown together with a girl who seems to be teetering on the brink of sanity, he comes into his own in a way he probably hasn't before. He panders to Gabie, but never too much, taking time to try and understand her while also preventing her from taking her crazed theories too far. Their growing friendship is extremely well observed as it moves from the need for mutual absolution through shared belief to a final solid and believable bond.
The Night She Disappeared is a short but incredibly well constructed novel. In addition to the first person narratives of Drew and Gabie, there are a further two prominent voices – both of which are eerily effective. There is also a third person, omniscient narrator through which we view snapshots of the community, most notably effective in a short section that and enters the lonely world of a police diver, searching for one family’s hell in the abyss of a dark river. In addition to this, the book contains fragments of evidence, scattered throughout its pages. Telephone and interview transcripts; a search warrant; the edict of a fortune cookie; a poignant To Do list; a bloody message scrawled on the label of a water bottle. This overcrowded format could have led to a confusing mess, but so carefully are the narratives and ephemera placed that they add a depth and a sense of frightening reality to April Henry’s already sinister story.
As the story progresses, Henry fills it with fascinating characters – some of whom appear only briefly but will stay with readers for much longer than their short appearances. From the psychic who may or may not be exploiting the situation to the tweaker who attracts suspicion to the police officer who dismisses Gabie as a possible victim because she’s just too plain, they are all exceptionally well realised. The Night She Disappeared is accomplished although the ending, while satisfying, lacks the ambiguity which haunts the real-life case that inspired the book’s premise. This is a minor quibble, though. Ultimately, The Night She Disappeared works well on many levels - thriller, horror, mystery, police procedural and YA contemporary all rolled into one compelling package. This is a book that is difficult to put down and one that will have you pondering the many societal issues it touches on long after you turn the last page.