Book Review: The Missing Hours by Julia Dahl
By Doreen SheridanSeptember 15, 2021
The Missing Hours by Julia Dahl is a novel about obsession, privilege, and the explosive consequences of one violent act, where a violent sexual assault leads Claudia Castro down the painful road toward vengeance but also recovery.
When Claudia Castro wakes up in her dorm room, she realizes quickly that something is very, very wrong. She has a black eye. Her underwear is missing. Everything hurts. And the pain is the only evidence that something happened. Her memory of the night before is a large, blank space.
Embarrassed and humiliated, she hides in her dorm for days, her only companion a young man she just met—Trevor, a student in her dormitory who also “staycationed” during Spring Break. Together, they try to piece together what happened during Claudia’s missing hours, and step-by-step they discover a conspiracy to protect Claudia’s attacker. But no amount of protection will stop Claudia from extracting her own brand of revenge.
The Missing Hours by Julia Dahl is a fast-paced crime story that centers on the loss of autonomy after a sexual assault. Dahl takes Claudia’s post-assault emotional chaos—humiliation, anger, loneliness, desperation—and uses them to drive a believable, heartbreaking vengeance storyline. Because sometimes revenge isn’t the healing balm we wish it to be.
The opening sequences of The Missing Hours are sometimes very painful. I felt every injury Claudia experienced. Dahl does a great job revealing Claudia’s confusion, pain, and thought process upon waking up with “the details of whatever happened … present all over her body.” The visceral descriptions made me furious, which definitely served to engage me through the rest of the story.
But Dahl takes some of the sting out by introducing an attentive university nurse who gets Claudia the medical care she needs. This scene introduces a healing element to the story because victims of sexual assault—especially drunk college girls who might’ve been “asking for it”—are often dismissed. The two people who Claudia meets after her attack, Trevor and the nurse, believe something bad has happened, and they try to help in their own way.
The nurse helps by asking key questions and getting her the care she needs.
“Was alcohol involved?”
Claudia nodded. “I’ve only ever blacked out once before.”
“Do you think that’s what happened? You blacked out from drinking?”
“I don’t really remember.”
“Would you say you think the sex was consensual then?”
“If you were incapacitated, do you think you were the victim of an assault?”
Claudia didn’t answer….
“I don’t know.” It took everything she had not to scream it.
At first, it seems like Claudia tries to feel some sense of normalcy. She attends her ex-boyfriend’s birthday party, bringing Trevor, her new security blanket, along. They go out drinking, and flashes of the night she was attacked surface in her memory.
Then, someone texts a video of her attack to her, to her ex, and to Trevor.
Any attempts to return to her previous, privileged life mean nothing to Claudia anymore. Trevor helps her figure out who the guilty parties are, where they are, and how to hurt them the way Claudia was hurt—because Claudia, too embarrassed to reach out to her family, too fearful of being ignored to go to the cops, refuses to let the perpetrators and their guardians get away with it.
“What should we do?” asked Trevor after he’d told her about his encounters with Chad and Ridley.
“Those assholes came after me too.”
Claudia was ready with her answer: “I have to assume that video is going to get out. When it does, the story isn’t going to be: Claudia Castro is a slut. The story is going to be: the guys who fucked with Claudia Castro got fucked up.”
While I appreciated the anger and the desire for revenge, The Missing Hours is also a testament to vengeance being “a dish best served cold.” Claudia and Trevor rush headlong into their plotting, but Claudia’s isolation is self-inflicted.
Her family is desperate to find her. Her sister is her best friend and would provide a safe place to land. Her father is understanding and caring. Even her outwardly selfish mother puts aside everything to try to find her. Claudia never had to rely on the kindness of strangers—though, of course, she didn’t know that. In many ways, the growth of the family into a unit is one of the most interesting and moving elements of this story. I think Claudia’s family would’ve been down with exacting some vengeance of their own.
Julia Dahl’s The Missing Hours is an exploration of the too-common emotional costs of such a personal, violent attack. The pain is real, the anger is real, but the healing is real too.