By Gemma Amor
A Book Review by Tony Jones
Anonymous letters ruin the life of a young woman haunted by a childhood tragedy
At the moment the world of horror and dark fiction is truly spoilt with the outstanding range of novella length fiction on the market. If you’re looking for a riveting read to devour in two hours flat, without any toilet breaks, then look no further than Gemma Amor’s Dear Laura. Once you start this baby, you will struggle to drag your eyes from the page in a raw story which beautifully blends thriller, mystery novel and horror. Although Dear Laura is perfectly formed at a lean 110 pages, the tale could easily have been expanded into a full-blooded crime novel and is clearly a leap the author may take with her future fiction.
The story opens with a woman, Laura, stumbling through a forest and although she has a destination in mind, she is also fearful of reaching it. Whilst she battles through the rain she clutches a sodden letter, one of many she has received over a thirty-year period; all of which she has memorised due to the countless times she has read them seeking hidden messages lurking within the words. These letters are all from the same man who has been sending these cryptic notes; always on her birthday, seemingly providing clues, numbers, coordinates and half-truths to a tragedy which has dominated Laura’s entire existence.
Why have these letters become an obsession? She is certain the sender is responsible for the kidnapping and murder of her best friend, and very briefly her boyfriend, Bobby, thirty years earlier to which she was the sole witness. Once she arrives at her unknown destination in the forest, she believes she will find out what truly happened to Bobby and the half-existence of never knowing what happened to him, will finally be over. That is if what is in the letters is to be trusted.
Dear Laura is told via two journeys and as Laura nears her destination in the forest, alternative chapters flip back to events over the previous thirty years, beginning when she was fourteen, exactly a year and a day after Bobby disappeared. At this early point the reader realises the young teenager is already psychologically damaged and has withdrawn from her friends, school and family. The story expertly conveys the sense of loss she feels; she thinks of Bobby all the time, remembering the touch of his fingers to the way he moved his hair. And ultimately; why did he get in the transit van? A question Laura has asked herself a million times. This is intense, edge of the seat, stuff.
Simply written stories can be very powerful and this is an outstanding example of telling a tale without wasting a word. As the young couple, who had only been ‘boyfriend and girlfriend’ for a single day, stood at the school bus stop it beautifully encapsulated the awkwardness of being a teenager and the moment when Laura watches Bobby enter an unfamiliar van. What should have been another normal day at school turns into something else entirely with police interviews and search parties.
The thrust of the story revolves around the letters which Laura receives from someone who signs himself simply as ‘X’. When Bobby’s body is never recovered, and memorials are held, Laura cannot move on because even if her memory of her boyfriend dims, the letters ensure she is forever being tormented by this faceless evil, which burrows into her inner-being. This part of the story worked exceptionally well, written in the third person, the reader could feel the pain of Laura and way in which the never-ending trauma had stunted and stained her life.
In the UK, in the mid-1960s two serial killers buried five children on Saddleworth Moor and a little boy called Keith Bennett’s remains were never found and although the killer implied he knew where the grave was he never revealed it, even after letter exchanges with the family. There is something reminiscent of the Keith Bennett tragedy within the pages of Dear Laura and how one horrible act can ruin so many lives and over many years. The mother of Bobby makes the same tearful appeals for information as I recall the mother of Keith Bennett making on British television.
Although Laura tries to have a life, and perhaps should have gone to the police when she received the first letter, the strange relationship with the sender of the letters dominates the story, even more so that her battle for closure. Instead she lives a life in the shadows, withdrawn, lonely and suspicious of everyone, pushing those close to her further away, including her parents. The story is soaked with pain and it feels as raw and authentic as she scene where Laura pulls out one of her own teeth. This scene was so realistic and gross I had to read it with one eye closed, but you’ll fully understand why Laura had to do it.
Although Bobby is hardly in Dear Laura, he dominates proceedings. His ghost and memory haunt every page, even when his image fades into the background and he disappears into newspaper footnotes. With outstanding pacing, eventually both story strands converge with a convincing and balanced ending which refuses to pull any punches with any feel-good easy resolutions.
Dear Laura, is well worth two hours of your time; something about the tormenting letters reminded me of a relatively obscure 1988 Dutch film The Vanishing which was later poorly remade in the USA, featuring a man obsessively searching for his missing girlfriend after receiving postcards from her supposed kidnapper. This is no copy though which tackles a difficult subject with style, substance and characters which were sympathetic and realistic. The mood was dark and oppressive throughout but stick around for a possible glimmer of sunlight at the end. Recommended from an author to watch out for.