Explanation, apology, confession, plea: Amity Gaige's novel is all of these, set down, in Schroder's words, as: "a record of where Meadow and I have been since our disappearance".

Meadow is Schroder's six-year-old daughter but his action in effectively kidnapping her for six days cannot be accounted for without an explanation of why and how Erik Schroder became Eric Kennedy.

The kidnapping of children by a parent in despair at unsatisfactory contact arrangements and the distress caused to the other is one of the bleaker features of the modern social landscape, marking a low point in broken communication.

Gaige explores this from the point of view of the angry father. It is a bold premise for a novel. The bare facts of Schroder and Meadow's "adventure" (which ends with the child rushed to hospital with a life-threatening asthma attack) suggest he fits the stereotype of the father whose rationality has been squeezed out of existence between hate for his ex-partner and love for his child. Yet his tale is compelling.

As a 14-year-old German immigrant living in Boston with his frequently silent father, Erik applied for a scholarship to summer camp as Eric Kennedy. The name was an homage to John F Kennedy, a hero in the poor suburbs of Boston and also in Berlin. Three idyllic summers in his new persona provided the key to becoming fully and convincingly Americanised via college, and when he fell in love with a teacher, he could not risk swapping the invented childhood near Hyannis Port for the reality of an ageing father in Boston and a mother left behind in Germany. Whether her failure to follow Erik and his father from East to West Berlin was a deliberate abandonment by her husband and son or an act of martyrdom to secure their future was something his father never discussed. That Erik never resolved it has repercussions for his own parenting.

In contrast to this confusion and the feeling of never quite belonging, the prospect of a simple, happy life as Eric Kennedy was irresistible. With marriage to Laura and the birth of Meadow, the dream appeared to be realised, albeit at the cost of giving up a career in translation for real estate at his father-in-law's insistence. Eric, however, was a successful salesman until the recession. By that time Meadow was three and Eric became her main carer while Laura returned to work. The arrangement forged a strong bond between father and daughter but also opened the fissure between husband and wife that led to separation and arguments over custody. Eric's ill-conceived plan to take Meadow on an unsanctioned trip is an attempt to regain that relationship. The unselfconscious, deep communication between father and six-year-old is one of the novel's triumphs.

On the run, he is forced to further disguise their identities until, knowing there is little time until he is unmasked, he begins to tell the child something of the truth, intending to take her to visit his father, finally acknowledging that he has cheated his child out of part of her identity.

Schroder's statement, far from the monotonous self-justification one might expect, is a lively narrative. It veers from insightful revelations about the struggle for identity felt by every immigrant, but which particularly besets the children of two cultures, to a road trip full of bitter-sweet moments, such as when Meadow swims in a lake. Eric hadn't known she could swim.

There is a memorable eccentric, April A, who had a rock song named after her, a woman with an interesting past and a doubtful future but who knows, instinctively, that Meadow is in need of better care than her father is currently providing. Schroder is an intelligent man who can also recognise absence, something which prompted him, in all seriousness, to study the impact of silence and pauses in speech.

In finally revealing his true self to Laura and to the reader, he demonstrates that he is what he has always wanted to be: a lovable man. In examining the story behind this crime of our times, Gaige reveals how, despite the best of intentions, to the point of taking on each other's traditional roles, the age-old lack of understanding between man and woman continues to bedevil the human condition.


Amity Gaige

Faber & Faber, £14.99