One day in the summer of 2003 the novelist Douglas Galbraith returned to his home in Scotland after a brief research trip to London. He was expecting to be picked up from the station by his Japanese wife, Tomoko, and was looking forward to seeing his sons, six-year-old Satomi and four-year-old Makoto. But no one was at the station.
When he eventually arrived home it was late evening. The house was empty. On the doormat was a letter from the Royal Mail addressed to Tomoko, confirming her instructions for mail to be forwarded to her new address in Japan.
The stark facts of the story – the abandoned house, the ebbing away of childhood as year succeeds year of implacable silence, the disappearance of two beloved beings, flesh of his flesh – have about them an air almost of unreality.
But they are true and Galbraith chronicles with elegantly contained rage the failures of justice and diplomacy that made them so: the indifferent police reaction, the incompetent lawyers, the response of British and Japanese diplomats (languid and hostile respectively), the uselessness of The Hague Convention on International Child Abduction.
“The acceptance of impotence comes slowly and only after a long rearguard action against evidence and reason,” he writes.
About his life before and after the abduction of his children, Galbraith tells us a stark minimum. His portrait of his wife and his marriage is so desolating that the reader cannot but wonder how these two fatally ill-matched people came together.
We learn that they met as postgraduates in the Eighties. That Tomoko, the second daughter of an Osaka bank official, lost her mother as a very young child. He implies that it may always have been her intention, from the moment of their conception, to deprive him of his children.
Tomoko is depicted with considerable artistry as a bullying monster of demonic willpower and ingenuity. Yet Galbraith argues that her actions were not a random act of cruelty, but symptomatic of a more insidious privileging of the role of motherhood – “the mothering virus”, as he calls it.
His book is a howl of pain, beautifully written by a man wounded beyond endurance. It is hardly reasonable to expect it to be objective as well.
But it is hard not to wonder how its agonised egotism would appear to his children if (as Galbraith evidently hopes they one day will) they were to read what he calls “this admittedly eccentric substitute father”.