Two English 18-year-old girls, Alexandra O’Connor and Rosie Shaw, go missing while backpacking in Thailand. A veteran reporter, Kate Waters, becomes interested in their story and gets to know the parents. When bodies are discovered after a fire in a guesthouse, Kate flies to Thailand to get the full story while at the same time looking for her son Jake who went to Thailand two years earlier and has had only sporadic contact with his family since. She discovers that Jake lived in that same guesthouse and may know something about the fire.
The novel is narrated from alternating points of view; most often, it is Kate and Alex’s mother Lesley who are the focus, but the viewpoint of DI Bob Sparkes, a police officer facing the impending death of his wife, is also given as he takes charge of the investigation on the British end. Alex’s voice is also heard in the emails she writes to her best friend.
The book touches on several topics. For instance, it addresses the way people edit their public lives on social media. Alex’s postings suggest that she is having a wonderful time but her private emails to her friend tell the truth: things are not going well between her and Rosie who is not really interested in exploring the country. It also examines what it is like to be on the receiving end of media attention; when Kate’s son becomes a person of interest, Kate, the newspaper reporter, says, “We’re taught that the truth is all that matters. . . . Everyone wants to know the truth. Except those who don’t. Those who stand to lose by it. I know that now.” The question of how well parents know their children is also asked; Kate starts to wonder about how well she knows Jake, and Rosie’s mother seems very much unaware of her daughter’s behaviour.
Alex and Rosie are foil characters; the former is the good girl and the latter is the bad girl. Alex is the responsible one who is interested in seeing Thailand while Rose is the partier who is really interested only in boys. There are other stereotypes too. There’s one young man who feels his parents have pressured him too much and another who is the product of the foster care system. The incompetence of the Thai police is unbelievable.
There are subplots that are unnecessary. For example, the terminal illness of Sparkes’ wife serves little purpose except to arouse sympathy for the policeman. The tensions between Rosie’s divorced parents are irrelevant.
Some elements leave the reader mystified. What parents would let their young daughters go unsupervised to Thailand? Alex is supposedly the mature girl who is aware of possible dangers for young travelers yet she is so naïve? Why do the girls continue to stay in a rooming house which is certainly substandard?
This is an easy, undemanding read. The chapters are short and the clues so obvious that the villains are easily identifiable. It might be a good book to take on a plane, though perhaps not on a flight headed to Thailand.