Welcome to the nbmagazine.co.uk stop on the blog tour for In the Absence of Miracles by Michael J Malone!

Here’s a little info about the book:

John Docherty’s mother has just been taken into a nursing home following a massive stroke and she’s unlikely to be able to live independently again. With no other option than to sell the family home, John sets about packing up everything in the house. In sifting through the detritus of his family’s past he’s forced to revisit and revise his childhood.

For in a box, in the attic, he finds undeniable truth that he had a brother who disappeared when he himself was only a toddler. A brother no one ever mentioned. A brother he knew absolutely nothing about. A discovery that sets John on a journey from which he may never recover.

For sometimes in that space where memory should reside there is nothing but silence, smoke and ash. And in the absence of truth, in the absence of a miracle, we turn to prayer. And to violence.

Shocking, chilling and heartbreakingly emotive, In the Absence of Miracles is domestic noir at its most powerful and a sensitively wrought portrait of a family whose shameful lies hide the very darkest of secrets.

And about author Michael J Malone:

Michael Malone is a prize-winning poet and author who was born and brought up in the heart of Burns’ country, in Ayr. He has published over 200 poems in literary magazines throughout the UK, including New Writing Scotland, Poetry Scotland and Markings. His career as a poet has also included a (very) brief stint as the Poet-In-Residence for an adult gift shop. Blood Tears, his bestselling debut novel won the Pitlochry Prize (judge: Alex Gray) from the Scottish Association of Writers. Other published work includes: Carnegie’s Call (a non-fiction work about successful modern-day Scots); A Taste for MaliceThe Guillotine ChoiceBeyond the Rage and The Bad Samaritan. His psychological thriller, A Suitable Lie, was a number one bestseller on AU/UK ebook charts, and House of Spines soon followed suit. Michael is a regular reviewer for the hugely popular crime fiction website www.crimesquad.com. A former Regional Sales Manager for Faber & Faber, he has also worked as an IFA and a bookseller.

And here’s Paul Burke’s review of In the Absence of Miracles:

‘That cat isnae going back in the bag, son.’ [Harry]

When John Docherty discovers a clue to a long-held family secret, solving the associated mystery becomes an obsession. He doesn’t even know what drives him but he can’t stop. As one discovery leads to another, John’s search becomes a dangerous business; not everyone wants the past raked up. As John faces up to his own demons, can he survive the truth?

In the Absence of Miracles is elegantly crafted, a multi-layered story that reads easily, although it will weigh heavily on your heart as you feel the pain that inhabits the characters in the novel. This is a story loaded with atmosphere, it’s a gritty tale of a screwed up family in a screwed up world. The past always messes with the present but this is a particularly dark waking nightmare; a story of grief, guilt, misery and hope. Malone is a poet, there are wonderful lyrical passages here and very skilful storytelling. Some issues are not spoken about enough, Malone raises a couple of those issues and sensitively but realistically addresses them in this novel.

John travels from Glasgow to visits his mother, Lorna, at Lennox House, the care home she was moved to after recovering from a stroke. Lorna is back in her home village but she will never be well enough to go home again. The only choice for John is to sell her house to pay for her care in this place. This opening is a touching portrait of family, reminiscent of many people’s experience and that’s key to a story that goes to some dark places but always sits in the real world (ageing, illness, relationships):

“My mother’s face had haunted me since I’d last seen her almost two weeks ago. Her one good eye staring. A string of saliva stretched from the corner of her mouth. Her right hand frozen into a claw as she struggled to reach for the warmth of mine.”

When he comes out, John’s girlfriend Angela realises that he needs some time to himself. He goes back to the family home, just to check the place over before they put it on the market. Of course, it brings back memories. In the attic he finds his dad’s old police uniform. Curiously, the memory of his father that comes to mind is of him in the kitchen one morning, head down on the table, empty bottle to hand. After further exploration John finds a couple of old boxes in the corner under some books. The first contains photographs, one of himself with a baby in his arms, he can’t remember anything about it, but his dad has written ‘the boys’ on the back. The second box, bizarrely, contains one sand shoe, stained, could that be blood? There are CDs and books, certainly not his parents’ stuff, but too old for him or his younger brother, Chris.

Chris turns up at the house and instantly spots something, the photograph isn’t of John with a baby, John is the baby, the question is who is the teenager holding him, the boy who looks so much like John at that age? John wants answers but he is sure he doesn’t want to talk to his mother about it. They find a newspaper clipping referring to a missing fourteen-year-old boy and a city-wide search, then a birth certificate from Glasgow, 1975: Thomas Docherty, an older brother neither knew existed. John starts tracking down old family friends and neighbours. Many of the people he needs to talk to are old, there’s a lighter moment or two as the information he seeks is withheld by a witness who needs a nap. John tracks down Davie Collins, a policeman on the inquiry at the time, but Collins says there was no evidence to follow up, even though no stone was left unturned. John takes to the library to investigate for himself, it isn’t long before he finds something that was overlooked or ignored. John’s friend Paul and his brother Chris help him. John begins to suffer as more things comes to light. While piecing together Thomas’ story, John begins to understand things about himself, repressed memories.

“Memory is not to be trusted. It’s as mendacious as the shimmer on the surface of a placid lake. Providing an illusion of calm, while beyond the sunless depths the sand and silt is littered with rocks and the debris of life.”

What happened to Thomas and why does John feel an inner unease about his own past?

I remember a story from a Sunday supplement in the 70s about ‘missing’ people, at a guess I would have been about ten, probably shouldn’t have been reading it but the article still bothers me. There were pictures of teenagers who just vanished leaving devastated families, mired in half-grief, it’s the not knowing that does it. Most of those who leave walk out to re-calibrating their lives, others commit suicide, some are murder victims, others kidnapped. This is one of the themes of the novel, what happens when someone goes missing? We don’t really talk much about the thousands of people who vanish every year, most come back, in one way or another, but not all: so what happened to Thomas?

The people of this novel ring true but John is particularly well drawn, subtle character traits and events reveal him to us; what drives him, the things he knows about himself and the things he is unaware of. From the moment his mother picks up on the smell of alcohol on his breath when he visits the home for the first time, we can believe in John and he is the engine for the story.

Perhaps as you would expect from a poet the descriptions are vivid and help to set the scene and the tone of the novel. In the Absence of Miracles explores a couple of important contemporary issues. This is fiction but it adds to the sum of our knowledge.

Paul Burke 4/5

In the Absence of Miracles by Michael J Malone
Orenda Books 9781912374793 pbk Sep 2019