June 23, 2020

Things we’ll never know

Behind the Book by
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Sarah Stewart Taylor’s The Mountains Wild is a simmering, immersive mystery that follows Maggie D’Arcy, a Long Island detective who journeys back to Ireland after learning that traces of her cousin Erin, who disappeared in the woods of Wicklow when both she and Maggie were in their early 20s, have been recovered.

In this essay, Taylor shares the haunting inspirations behind her debut novel: a series of real-life disappearances, and a friend who wasn’t who she said she was.

In September 1993, I moved to Dublin, Ireland. I had just graduated from college and the gesture was pure impulse, loosely inspired by a really good Irish literature seminar I’d taken my senior year and the week I’d spent in Dublin and the Dingle Peninsula the summer before. I used my summer job savings to buy a one-way plane ticket; I figured I’d work and travel for a bit and then come home and get a real job. I stayed for 2 1/2 years.

Not long after I arrived, I was in the back of a crowded car on an autumn night when the newly chilled air crept up steeply winding roads, driving back up to the city from a famous and somewhat touristy pub high up in the Dublin Mountains, and I heard for the first time that an American woman had disappeared in these mountains—perhaps near the pub—only a few months before I’d arrived in the country. I remember an Irish friend saying, “You’re from Long Island? Just like the girl who disappeared,” and warning me to be careful, as though the disappearance had something to do with Long Island, with being American.

I loved Dublin, immediately and completely. I find that many people, if they are lucky, can point to a place from the era of early adulthood that will always be The Place, the place we became ourselves, the place we had romantic adventures, the place we experienced soul-crushing loneliness and soul-lifting community, the place we discovered what we actually like, what we want and with whom, given the choice, we like to spend time. For me, it was Dublin. I loved every street I explored, every pub and coffee shop and bookstore and butcher shop. I worked for a while and then ended up going to graduate school there.

I walked the city endlessly in those years, striding along empty roads late at night, never afraid, despite the disappearance of the American woman. I once went hiking alone in the mountains where she’d disappeared. I thought about her and wondered. I thought about her family. It wasn’t until I returned home to the States that, thanks to the advent of online news, I started to follow the news about her still unresolved case, and the subsequent disappearances of Irish women in roughly the same region of the country, between 1993 and 1998. It was quite clear, in most of the cases, that something terrible had happened. By the end of the decade, what appeared to be the series of linked disappearances stopped.

Certainly, my novel The Mountains Wild has its origin in the tragedy of these unsolved mysteries. My main character Maggie D’arcy travels, fruitlessly, to Ireland when her beloved and troubled cousin Erin disappears in the Wicklow Mountains. Twenty-three years later, another young woman goes missing and new evidence suggests Maggie and her family may finally get the resolution they’ve been seeking. It was the thought of what the families of all of the missing women must be going through, how the lack of resolution and certainty must have haunted them, must haunt them still, that stuck with me. I think the novel must have started turning in my head two decades before I began to write it.

But if at first it seemed to me that I was writing a novel about those disappearances, I have since realized that, as is the case with many books, it’s much more indirect and complicated than that. If the real-life cases provided a spark of circumstance, it was another experience—and another woman—that provided me with the heart of my story and the themes and questions I wanted to explore. The experience was this: During those years I lived in Dublin, I had a friend who turned out not to be who she said she was. The name we knew her by was not her name. The details about her life that she told us were not true.

Looking back, of course there were things we should have picked up on.

I made a group of friends in Dublin who were all connected to a youth hostel where some of us lived and some of us worked. We were Irish and French and Scottish and English and American and Italian. It was a heady time. The constant coming and going of other young people from all over the world was life changing and life defining for me, but there were permanent characters among those of us who lived in the hostel too: an alcoholic house painter, a narcissistic and nocturnal Anglo-Irish artist. C. arrived in the middle of the night, ill, and with a heartbreaking story about arriving in Dublin to discover her husband was having an affair, no longer wanted to be married and had cut off her access to their bank accounts. She was Irish, but had been living in London for many years and they were moving back. She had no family left in Ireland, no way of making a living. There was something fragile about her that made you want to help her and she was fun to talk to; we spent a lot of nights listening to her stories and laughing.

Looking back, of course there were things we should have picked up on. I was working at a pub and always had a lot of small bills and coins in my jacket or backpack. Sometimes I would think I had a 20-pound note in my pocket and when I went to find it, it was gone.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Mountains Wild.

At some point, my passport and Social Security card disappeared out of my backpack, but I told myself I’d been careless, leaving it around at work, and I assumed that’s where it had been stolen. Meanwhile, C. and J., one of our friends who worked at the hostel, decided to get a flat together. C. told us she’d gotten a job as an accountant. I was now working as an au pair and living with the family for whom I worked, but on the weekends I would often stay at their flat after we’d gone out to the pubs or clubbing. Other friends of ours would stay too and for a while, it was one of those roommates-like-family-everyone-lying-around-hungover-on-Sunday-mornings situations.

One night we came back to the flat to find C. sitting on the couch, claiming that a friend of hers from work had been over for a drink. They’d had a great time, she said, recounting stories the friend had told her. But something felt off. There were two glasses on the coffee table, but it was clear that only one wine glass had been filled. One Monday morning, after staying at the flat for the weekend, I told C. I’d walk with her as far as her office and then take the bus home. She seemed nervous during our walk and when I left her outside her office, I walked on and then looked back to see her furtively walking back towards the flat. I thought to myself, She doesn’t work in that building. Soon after, she told us she was going on medical leave. J., who was living with C., started to become suspicious about where C’s money was coming from. There were excuses for anything that seemed strange, more lies, stories that drew you in and made you want to believe that she really had been unfairly let go. But finally, J. searched the flat and found disturbing things, including piles of stolen mail and checkbooks, IDs in different names, checks written by a man to a woman whose name we’d never heard before. J. moved out and we heard later that C. had been arrested. We could never get any other information.

. . . was there a question I could have asked that might have broken the whole thing open?

I sometimes think that that’s when I became a crime writer. It was maddening. The name we had was fake, the details too. We had so many questions. How had we been fooled? Who was she? The one that stuck with me was: How could I have thought I knew someone and, in fact, not have known her at all? Was there a question I could have asked that might have broken the whole thing open?

These ideas—the parts of the people we care about that are never truly known to us and the crucial questions we should ask, but don’t—are the thematic source of my novel about a very different and real-life disappearance.

Undoubtedly, there was a sad story at the root of C.’s deception, but because we never found out, the experience haunted me, and eventually found its way into a novel inspired by the real-life cases of disappeared women in Ireland. But C. is at its heart. I will always wonder who she really was, what happened to her, whether she might have told me the truth if I had only asked the right question, if perhaps she was only waiting for someone to ask it.

Sarah Stewart Taylor

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The Mountains Wild

The Mountains Wild

By Sarah Stewart Taylor
ISBN 9781250256430

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