8 July 2021

#Review - Where the Missing Gather by Helen Sedgwick

Where the Missing Gather (Burrowhead, 2)
Helen Sedgwick
Point Blank (Oneworld), 8 July 2021
Available as: PB, 416pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy via NetGalley
ISBN(PB): 9781786079770

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of Where the Missing Gather, via NetGalley.

Sequel to last year's When the Dead Come Calling, Where the Missing Gather returns to Burrowhead, the inward-looking, coastal English village where we met beleaguered DI Georgie Strachan and her slightly annoying husband Fergus. Like its predecessor, Where the Missing Gather is one part crime, three parts folk horror (it's VERY creepy) and two parts dissection of an insular England. And like its predecessor, these parts are blended very skilfully, topping the whole thing off with relatable - though, as I've hinted above, sometimes annoying - characters, real people who make plausible decisions - and plausible mistakes.

The crime... 

Burrowhead has secrets, both modern and historical, so it's not surprising that three investigations should arise at the same moment. First, a horse is brutally killed in the woods (there are vibes of blood sacrifice in the horrific way that she died). Secondly, a body is found buried in a field. Thirdly, information is received about an assault decades before. The information comes from Betty Marshall, an elderly resident of a care home in "the City" - far from Burrowhead, and requiring DS Daniel Frazer to travel back out to "the villages" to investigate ('Please God, he thinks, don't let this be about Burrowhead.')

The folk horror... 

When the Dead Come Calling made it clear that Burrowhead has its own traditions, primitive and perhaps abhorrent to the wider world, and that those traditions have self-appointed guardians, folk who see it as their role to "defend" the village. (One of them may have been kind old Uncle Walt, although in a neat symmetry with Frazer's informant, he's now unable to shed much light on things - his niece Trish (one of Georgie's PCs) has had to find him, too, a place in a care home). The nature and extent of these traditions was left vague in the earlier book, but now Sedgwick is more forthcoming, showing us both how ancient they are, how effective they may be, how they underlie repeating patterns of violence and hatred over the centuries - and how often appalling things are justified as 'what must be done'.

The matter of England... 

Sedgwick situates her story in a very contemporary context of barely suppressed (at time, not suppressed at all) nativism, accentuated in Burrowhead by the village's distaste for anyone not born and bred locally. It's a thing that almost reaches religious levels of fervour. ('he is not from here and what more do they need to know?') Pamani's shop is still graffiti'd nightly, and both Georgie and Frazer, as people of colour, partricularly feel the hostility. The B-word isn't mentioned anywhere, but it's impossible not to read recent events into this story of a small community blaming outsiders for everything that has gone wrong - the lack of jobs, the closure of services, the buying up of farmland by wealthy incomers (albeit incomers who have been three generations in the place!) That graffiti does, after all, say (among other things) 'Take back ConTrol'.

This atmosphere of menace, of a grinding, persistent hostility built into the fabric of the place, is one of the things that challenges Georgie, alongside the persistent threat that her outpost of a police station will be closed to save costs, and alongside the wall of silence over the crimes she's trying to solve. But she faces problems at home, too. Fergus - perhaps from a desire to see the best in people - continually downplays the hostility ('So much easier to forgive racism if you know it'll never be directed against you.') He's - somewhat desperately, I'd say - also still attempting to ferret out the historic secrets of Burrowhead (whether from a genuine interest in history or because he somehow things that telling the story will be healing, I'm less sure). So Where the Missing Gather features an archaeological dig, which made me smile for a couple of reasons: first, because poor Fergus thinks he will be able to spend the day digging and then do a nightshift on the tills at the supermarket without even cleaning up (no, Fergus. No you won't, and my knees and back will explain why...) and secondly, because the hoped for results fall spectacularly into the "contested history" bit of our busy culture wars (as mapped onto the particular concerns of Burrowhead). Sedgwick gives us a little vignette of the past, so we know before Fergus just what it is he's excavating, and why it's not good news, but there are plenty of other mysteries associated with the dig, not least why self appointed community leader Natalie Prowle is so interested. 

It's an, at times, dense story, taking its time to let the consequences of the first book, and the new perspectives on them provided here, percolate through the little community - and through Georgie and Fergus's marriage, which seems shakier than ever. Burrowhead is a place of silences, but not of forgetting, and a lot of the information conveyed here is done obliquely and through establishing atmosphere as much as through activity. Sedgwick does this so well, nailing the effect of people on landscape and places ('what is it that people bring to a place? ...It's the sound of them, the heat and the colour and the way that when he catches someone's eye, even if they don't say a word, he can feel some kind of connection that he feels only the lack of...')

Burrowhead is also a place with its own loyalties, as Georgie already knows, and there seems to be a decreasing number of people whom she might trust - so the arrival of another outsider, Frazer, is a bit of a lift for her, although he doesn't really feature as much in this book as in the previous one (and so far, the sense of dread he experiences at returning to the coast is matched in events - although a lot is left unresolved and I'm sure his moment will come!)

I loved returning to Burrowhead (though you wouldn't want to live here) and hope to go back soon, as there's clearly unfinished business in that dark place. 

For more information about Where the Missing Gather, see the publisher's webpage here.

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