The shadows stretched their arms to her. They cried in broken voices, just beyond, always beyond. There was no end. The ultimate cruelty, the ultimate uncertainty remained.
The Indo-Pak war of 1971 resulted in the creation of Bangladesh (till then the East wing of Pakistan) and was won by India. However, like any other victory achieved in a war it came at a price. A wound that still festers is the fate of the 54 Indian soldiers who were declared missing in action. The Indian claim is that these personnel are alive and imprisoned in Pakistani jails. Pakistan denies the existence of any such POWs. For a long time, perhaps on a particular day (16th December, when Pakistan signed the instrument of surrender?) family members of the Missing 54 would hold protest marches and meet government officials with letters and petitions. I especially remember an old man whose son was one of the 54. The old man would show a letter written in Urdu that apparently his son had somehow got a jail official to write and post to him. Every year, he’d be there, the old man, pleading somebody … anybody to take notice. Even when he was on a wheel chair, he’d come and ask for his son’s rescue and release. Then one year, he wasn’t there and I wondered what had happened to him…
How strange it is that these images which I had all but forgotten came flashing back to me as I read Lucille Fletcher’s … And Presumed Dead which has a wife searching for her missing husband after he and his plane disappear somewhere over Germany.
Julie Gray, a young teenager, is swept off her feet by Russell Thorpe, son of a wealthy and famous medical practitioner. However, Russ’ mother, Cecilia, doesn’t approve of Julie who is considered to be too lowly in status for her brilliant Harvard-educated son. Disregarding her, the young couple, very much in love, elope and get married. Soon, too soon, however, Russ is drafted and when he goes on a bombing raid on Essen in Germany, he doesn’t return. What arrives is a telegram that he is ‘missing in action’.
Cecilia Thorpe, by then a widow herself, refuses to believe that her son could have died just like that. At first, Julie thinks her mother-in-law is going mad but then few things make her start believing that Russ might not be dead: A neighbour sees a documentary made in Germany that has somebody who looks like Russ, a gypsy enters their house and says that Russ is alive, a ring that Russ had worn on his mission arrives by post. Cecilia and Julie are now united in their determination to bring Russ back. However, even as they are making plans, Cecilia disappears. Julie, bribing the maid comes to know that Cecilia has left for Alpenstadt in Switzerland and follows her. What follows thereafter is a game of cat-and-mouse between the two of them even as Julie becomes convinced that Russ is alive and well, that he has started a new life in Germany and that both he and Cecilia now want her out of the way.
The problem is to whom does Julie turn for help: the old kindly English gentleman, the handsome French stranger who makes Julie feel alive again but whose eyes show an inquisitiveness that Julie mistrusts, or the polite German hotel concierge who has an innocent crush on her?
This is a first-rate thriller which will keep you guessing for the most part. I enjoyed reading it but also found it disturbing as it demonstrates acutely the pain of those who do not find a closure.
Have you read it? Did you too find it disturbing?
First Line: Years later, she would dream of Alpenstadt, and wake, oppressed by fear.
Publication Details: NY: Random House, 1963
First Published: 1963
Source: Open Library
Other books read of the same author: Mirror Image
Part of the Friday’s Forgotten Books meme.