A gripping book which takes you by the hand and leads you, ever faster, in ever decreasing circles around and around the case of a missing child until up is down, left is right, and the hand holding yours can't be trusted.
When Rachel is taking her son for a walk through the woods one Sunday afternoon in Autumn, he asks her if he may run ahead. He's only going to a rope swing. He's been there a dozen times before. Come on, mum, he knows where he's going. And single-mother Rachel, keen to allow her son some independence, reluctantly agrees. Off he runs. In the time it takes for her to make her own way around the corner and down the path, he is gone.
From then on the book is a maze, more paths crossing over one another than Rachel has ever seen in the patch of woodland where she lost her son. We bounce between the viewpoints of Rachel and Jim, the investigator assigned to the case. Rachel simply speaks while Jim is recounting the case to a psychotherapist, whose presence makes me nervous. What has Jim seen? Why has he been told to speak about the case?
Rachel talks directly to the reader, sometimes asking you questions, wondering if you can guiltily identify the schadenfreude that she sees in the eyes of those around her, if you can honestly state that you've always given the time and attention you should have done to those that you love. Sometimes you ask yourself if Rachel can be trusted. She's speaking to you the way that Jim is writing reports, which we are secretly privy to; yet, there is no one guaranteeing her story with procedure, no one to confirm her view of things. This confusion is just another way Macmillan expertly keeps you engrossed.
Burnt Paper Sky is that rare thing in reading – a book which hooks you and keeps you focused on it until the end. More than once I realised that I needed to make myself a cup of tea because the one I'd made before settling down to read had gone stone cold, waiting for me to draw even a modicum of attention away from the book. I found myself turning the pages and looking to the bottom of the next one, allowing my glance to steal away from the action only to tease myself with what might happen next. It was a conscious effort to force myself to read more slowly and actually take in the detail Gilly Macmillan uses.
Detail is a great strength throughout the story. Macmillan has a delicate touch with metaphors, which never feel forced or obtuse and allow you to access the feelings of Rachel and Jim only too well. Macmillan is also skilled at giving you detail just at the moment you don't want it, just at the moment that you most long the story to move forward at provide you with answers. She foreshadows nearly everything that happens in the story, hinting at things, teasing you. But so many gripping parts of the book are irrelevant, allowing you the tiniest glimpse inside Rachel's utter helplessness.
Normally I am not a fan of epilogues. More often than not I find that they come cross as a lazy tool for tying up the ends that didn't quite make it into the bulk of the action (meeting Harry Potter's children 19 years later, anyone?). However, in Burnt Paper Sky I wanted the epilogue. I wanted, and needed, to know what had happened to Ben. I wanted to know how Rachel and Jim were coping with the case. I wanted to feel that every part of the story was closed. Jim talks to his psychotherapist about how chasing down every lead in a case, obsessing maybe over a car which a witness says they saw at the scene but which was never traced, can drive a person insane. They may even know that the details aren't relevant anymore; they may have solved the case. But that is how I felt – obsessive.
Gilly Macmillan manipulates you as you read, never allowing you to rest, never letting you feel steady on your feet. So sit yourself down and make sure no one needs you for the next twenty-four hours before you start reading. And then finish and appreciate those who do need you that much more.