The Missing Pieces of Sophie McCarthy is the kind of novel that evokes a sense of déjà vu, making you think you’ve read it before, or at least one very like it. This is not a criticism of the author, merely an observation of what is fact. As Ronald B. Tobias writes in his book, Twenty Master Plots and How to Build Them (1990), a plot is a form of architecture which needs to have structure to make it usable. Since all buildings need bricks there is a ubiquitous element to them which is basic to all constructions. The same can be said of fiction-writing. Therefore, it is not unsurprising over a lifetime of reading to come across novels which in terms of format and plot at any rate bear echoes of previous ones.
In this instance we have chapters bearing the names of characters in which they tell part of the story from their perspective and in doing so help to move it on. Other examples of this literary device are Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible (1998) and Cold Earth by Sarah Moss (2009).
Carroll’s novel is a cauldron of every emotion known to man. Among anger, grief, jealousy, hate, resentment, the most significant emotion to feature is the sense loss which manifests itself in numerous different guises. Loss and pain, real and psychological, are the threads holding the narrative together. Its main protagonist, Sophie McCarthy, is arguably the character most burdened by all of these. Ambitious, impatient, controlling, driven by an all-consuming desire for perfectionism in everything she does, Sophie is forced to make significant adjustments to her life following an early-morning car accident on Sydney’s Anzac Parade in which her car is a write-off and she is left with broken bones and lasting nerve damage. The excruciating pain she experiences with even the smallest careless movement makes every day of her life a physical and mental challenge. Only someone who suffers chronic pain or disability her or himself can truly appreciate these difficulties as she tries to pick up the threads of her working life after months in hospital and a period of recuperation at home. She tells the reader:
“It’s even harder than I expected. Getting up at the first trill of the alarm clock. Showering, straightening my hair, putting on make-up. Dressing, having breakfast, being ready by a nominated time. It’s 8 a.m. when Dad pulls up outside the house and I already feel as if I’ve done a full day’s work.”
It seems at this stage that Sophie McCarthy is the victim of a terrible catastrophe that has a huge impact on her life, but that otherwise she is a good person who seeks only to bring out the best in herself and others. Like every other character in the novel she is, however, a deeply flawed individual as gradually becomes clear when people who have known her in the past begin to reveal her darker side.
Aidan Ryan who causes the accident which leaves Sophie so debilitated is overcome with feelings of guilt and remorse and tries to make up for the consequences of his momentary loss of concentration on Anzac Parade. He visits Sophie in hospital. In a perverse turn of events victim and perpetrator discover a strong attraction for one another. Aidan leaves his wife and daughter to move in with Sophie. The conflict of loyalties he grapples with are mirrored in his wife, Chloe, whose loss of partner takes on the form of grief. It’s an emotion she shares with Hannah whom she meets watching their children play soccer on Saturday mornings. A widow, Hannah, struggles to make ends meet. In the circle of interconnecting relationships she is also new to the company for which Sophie works. Remembering Sophie from her schooldays and finding her a hard task master at work, as others have done before her, she begins to investigate an incident which happened at the time.
Sophie’s father, Richard, finds it impossible to understand how his daughter is able to have a relationship with someone who has caused her life-changing injuries. His pain and sense of loss is the realisation that Sophie will now never be able to fulfil her full potential in either her career or her personal life. His anger and frustration lead him to uncharacteristic actions which show that even the strongest of us can only cope with so much and, stretched too far, we will reach breaking point.
The Missing Pieces of Sophie McCarthy is peopled almost entirely by unsympathetic characters, but it is by this very definition that they become intensely human. We all know people like them. Misguided people who act irrationally when life becomes too complicated to permit clear thinking. They deserve to be allowed to tell us their story and we should hear them out. After all, every one of us could some day find ourselves in a similar situation.
As Chloe says at one point in the novel:
“ …. it can be argued that our pain, albeit a different kind of pain, will be just as enduring as hers.”
Any Cop?: A page-turner which will make you think afresh about the things life can throw at us and how we might react.