Lost and found: Sheena Kamal puts a feminist spin on the hardboiled noir thriller

The Lost Ones
Sheena Kamal
William Morrow

Fans of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (the filmmakers of the spinoff/sequel The Girl in the Spider’s Web, which opens this weekend, are betting that there still remains a healthy cohort of these) tend to forget that the eponymous character is not the protagonist of Stieg Larsson’s novel. Though the resourceful and vengeful Lisbeth Salander is the figure that has found a place in the popular zeitgeist, the central character in Larsson’s book is a man: disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist. It is Blomkvist who is contacted by an obscenely wealthy Swedish businessman to investigate a cold case involving a murder decades in the past. Salander is essentially subcontracted to do technical work for Blomkvist, who eventually becomes her lover before spurning her at the novel’s close. Though Larsson depicts Salander as courageous and vulnerable  – she is certainly not what E.M. Forster would have considered a “flat” character – it is Blomkvist who fills the central role in the book. Throughout, Salander remains a foil who has skills Blomkvist requires but is not ultimately essential to unravelling the mystery at the book’s heart.

The Lost OnesIt is perhaps inevitable that Nora Watts, the biracial heroine of Vancouver writer Sheena Kamal’s 2017 novel The Lost Ones, should draw comparisons to Salander. Both are headstrong and determined; both are survivors of sexual abuse; both are capable of uncovering secrets that remain out of reach to the men in their circles. But unlike Salander, Nora is not cast as support for a male hero; she remains at the centre of her own story, narrating the novel in the first person and serving as the active agent propelling the plot forward.

As with Larsson’s book, Kamal’s plot is steeped in the sins of the past. In The Lost Ones, this involves Nora’s daughter, a product of rape whom she gave up for adoption at birth and has not encountered since. When she receives a mysterious phone call in the wee hours of the morning, Nora learns from the girl’s adoptive parents that she has gone missing and has been written off by the authorities as just another teenage runaway. Unconvinced that this is true, Nora embarks on an increasingly dangerous quest to find her missing daughter.

The Lost Ones traffics in the tropes of noir mystery – Vancouver, with its ubiquitous rain and mist, is a significant character in itself – juiced with thriller elements that would not be out of place in a James Bond novel. Only twice do these set pieces push suspension of disbelief beyond where it is reasonable: during an incursion at a technology company and in a narrow escape from the Vancouver Public Library. These scenes feel forced and sit uncomfortably alongside the more realistic material, which includes a tour of the forgotten denizens in the city’s notorious Downtown Eastside and a fierce depiction of the struggles faced by survivors of sexual trauma. A sexual encounter late in the book risks appearing exploitative, though Kamal uses it as a means of conveying Nora’s resilience and inward strength (as well as giving her a physically pleasurable experience that is entirely separate from the hideous violence associated with her assault).

Nora’s first-person narration is tough and engaging and Kamal provides her character with numerous identifying traits – her crystalline singing voice, a preternatural ability to detect when people are lying to her, and eyes that are so dark as to appear almost completely black. In fact, Nora’s voice is so singular that the few moments in which Kamal pulls out of her first-person narration to provide third-person glimpses of Nora’s daughter and, in one late scene, a secondary character searching for Nora in the snowy wilds of B.C. come off as jarring. They feel like artificial intrusions into the story, impeding the momentum and pulling the reader out of the narrative. There is also a subplot involving a second missing-person investigation that is introduced early and then more or less abandoned.

These structural flaws notwithstanding, when Kamal confines her focus to the novel’s central subject – the search for Nora’s daughter, which brings her inexorably closer to a violent reckoning with her past – she provides readers with a tense and twisty tale that injects a good dollop of feminist rage into a genre that has been accused, often with good reason, of sexism and outright misogyny. The plural in the title is significant; Kamal has crafted a story about a woman who is searching not only for her missing offspring, but in a very real way for herself as well. The fact that Kamal sets her story in a distinct and recognizable Vancouver, as opposed to defaulting to Chicago or New York, is just one more selling point for an intriguing and original noir thriller.

Lost and found: Sheena Kamal puts a feminist spin on the hardboiled noir thriller
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