Dark secrets

Six YearsHarlan CobenOrion Books2013, pp 351695

Six years ago, Jake Fisher of Harlan Coben’s Six Years watched the woman of his dreams, Natalie, marry another man. The wedding left Jake shattered, especially after Natalie extracted a promise from him that he would leave her, and her husband, alone.

Jake returned to his work as college professor, and threw himself into it, although he never really recovered from Natalie’s marriage to someone whom she claimed was a former boyfriend. Then, six years later, Jake stumbles on an obituary on the college website — of Natalie’s husband Todd Sanderson. Old feelings that were never fully suppressed, resurface, and he can’t keep himself away from the funeral. Only once there, he discovers that Todd’s wife is named Delia, and they have two teenaged children. There’s no sign of Natalie. One thing leads to another, and Jake discovers that Natalie seems to have disappeared. Thus begins a search for her, and Jake runs into weird events. It appears Natalie has simply vanished from the grid.

To be sure, the book has interesting moments. Discovering Todd’s obituary and the events that follow are suspense-ridden, although Jake’s fascination with a woman he’s known for a grand total of three months, when they met at a retreat in Vermont, seems a little unhealthy. He is, as a friend of his puts it, “damaged goods”. His life as a college professor has done very little to soften his obsession with Natalie. Throughout the novel, his thoughts and memories of Natalie, the time he spent with her, her paints, her remarks, her beauty, all give him an air of being a little too love -sick.

Of course, the element of surprise is fairly strong in Six Years. There are friends that knew both Natalie and Jake who deny knowing them at all. The retreat he met her at is gone as well. The church where Natalie married Todd has no record of such a wedding. Jake’s best friend Benedict suggests that Jake is hallucinating the entire thing, because despite his claims, Natalie seems to exist only in his head and even Benedict hasn’t seen her. Natalie’s sister Julie doesn’t recognise Jake either, apparently.

Jake is warned to drop his search for her, and he blunders on nevertheless. He gets abducted, roughed up, and seriously injured. There’s an organisation called Fresh Start thrown into the fray. Six Years is pretty atmospheric. There’s a lot of build-up, then again, only to fizzle out into improbable plot points and strange dark doings. Evil exists in this book, and it’s blatantly, sadistically, evil, replete with torture instruments. Fresh Start claims to be morally gray, and it’s exactly that, because nobody knows what they’re doing. There are clichés.

 A lot of them, and they become evident in the reading.Jake is, to say the very least, persistent, and sometimes his persistence borders on sheer stupidity. He is reckless, and at the same time, cares for his students, and gets himself suspended. Natalie dominates his thoughts, despite her abandonment of him and her betrayal, and those memories prevent him from pursuing another relationship. He appears to have a slapdash sense of humour that isn’t always funny. As for Natalie, there really isn’t enough to go on to imagine her character in the flesh. There are Jake’s recollections, and those aren’t entirely ideal. And then everything turns on its head.

It is a little frustrating to discover that Jake is the only man left in the dark, groping around with little or no knowledge of anything around him. Natalie’s disappearance is a case in point. As the blurb puts it, the man he has become may be based on carefully constructed fiction. Julie eventually reveals to Jake that Natalie had only met Todd just before her wedding. But that wasn’t what Natalie had told Jake before their breakup. A lot of people close to Jake appear to be in the know, except for, well, Jake. There are lies, deceit, murder, and the plot, with its twists and turns, becomes a little convoluted. Natalie’s shadow hovers over the entire story, as she’s constantly in Jake’s thoughts. Eventually, though, she does make an appearance…leaving the reader guessing how she got there in the first place, and why she disappeared so convincingly.

As a mystery thriller, there are elements in Six Years that work. There are missing people, hazy identities, dark secrets, and mayhem. But there’s also Jake and his blundering, and the first person narrative that makes him seem, well, a bit of a wimp. There are many characters in the book, and sometimes, it gets confusing. When seemingly random incidents are tied up, it gets more confusing because, on the face of it at least, of the implausibility of the whole thing.Overall, Six Years is a mixed reading experience.

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