I was so excited for this book to come out so when my signed copy dropped through the letterbox last week I started reading immediately. Sophie Hannah is one of my favourite authors, and her deeply awkward but brilliant detective Simon Waterhouse is one of my reading pleasures. She devises twists and turns that I rarely guess or expect and the premise for this latest novel was simply ingenious. I couldn’t imagine how she was going to resolve the central question. Thomas and Emily Braid were the children of Beth’s friend Flora, but they haven’t seen each other for twelve years. They should be 17 and 15 by now. So, when Beth is visiting near their current home and she decides to drive by, only to see an older Flora with her children looking exactly the same age. Why haven’t they grown?
Understandably, Beth is stunned. She can’t believe what she is seeing. She hears Flora get them out of the car by name, they even seem to have the same clothes. She waits to see if the baby, Georgina, is with them but it’s just the three of them. She watches in disbelief as the electric gate closes and they’re obscured from view. Beth tells her family about what she has seen. She and husband Dom discuss the peculiarities of both Flora, and her husband Lewis Braid. Both remember Flora as the quieter of the two, and Lewis as the louder, more opinionated of the pair. Lewis is a joker too, but often at someone else’s expense. Beth remembers him always being the centre of any party and that awkward feeling when someone you’re with is being loud or offensive. Flora, by comparison was quiet, and her only intervention when her husband said something controversial was ‘Lew-is’.
Beth and her husband Dom are massage therapists. They have two children Zannah and Ben. Dom is on board at first, just as curious as Beth about what she has seen. They do some googling and digging on Facebook, but find something very weird. The Braid family are living in Florida, with a teenage Thomas and Emily photographed several times. No sign of Flora or Georgia. The mystery starts to affect Beth’s life as she postpones clients and spends a second day searching for the young Braids. She realises that Lewis would have his children in a private school and starts to stake them out. In Huntingdon she almost walks straight into Flora, and her instinctive feeling that something is badly wrong seems justified when Flora runs in the other direction.
Beth finds the car she saw the children in, finds it unlocked and climbs inside to wait. Flora will have to come back eventually, but things get even more strange when a totally different woman appears claiming that this is her car. She says she is Jeanette Cater, speaks with an accent and yet she wearing the very same clothes that Flora was wearing earlier. I must admit that this is where I started to wonder whether our narrator was as reliable as she seemed. I could see her husband’s point as the clients start to pile up and she can’t leave the mystery alone, even enlisting the help of her daughter who should be revising for GCSEs. It starts to become an obsession, but based on a sound premise – Flora and Beth used to be friends, she knows her voice and she knows, without doubt, that something was wrong from the way she heard Flora speaking on the phone.
Underneath the twists and turns, this is a story about friendship. As Beth thinks about the Braid family and the time 12 years ago when they moved, she remembers tension between the married couple. In fact she recalls once that Lewis shouted at Flora for breastfeeding the new baby in company. She starts to realise that the birth of Georgina, or even when Flora becomes pregnant, their friendship started to change. Beth had lost a child before Flora’s pregnancy and remembers a terrible thing she did with a photograph of the family. Was it Beth’s loss and jealousy that ruined the friendship or was something separate going on between the couple? I was absolutely gripped by this point and had to keep reading. I was squinting at 3am using a book light with a dodgy battery. I think it gave me a migraine! ‘This book is so good it gave me a migraine’ is probably not the best selling point, but I mean it in the best way. Genius.