‘You fit into me like a hook into an eye, a fish hook an open eye’. Margaret Atwood
That opening quote really set the scene for me as a reader. It’s a shocking image. You read the first part and imagine the joining of two things meant to be together, made for each other in fact. The second part is visceral, violent and brings up images of the tussle between an angler and a fish; opposing forces, locked together in battle. Our narrator is Sylvie, born in France but now living in London with her daughter Emma. She’s divorced from Emma’s father Guy, who now lives in Paris with his second wife and young sons. It’s summer and Sylvie receives a message about their french home La Revieres. This is where Sylvie and her sister Camille grew up, but the family haven’t been there for ten years and vandals have started a small fire in one of the outbuildings. Sylvie decides its time to sell and plans for her and Emma to drive over to France for a small holiday, in order to tidy the house and put it on the market. As soon as they arrive, an unease starts to build in Sylvie and Emma, a sense that someone is watching them. What is the secret at the heart of this family and why is La Revieres so significant they haven’t been able to go back till now?
The book moves into three main time lines as Sylvie’s tale moves back and forth. The author builds a tense, oppressive atmosphere slowly. There’s the oppression of the heat, a window banging in the night in an unused room, and the menace of boys on mopeds driving up to the house at night. We realise Sylvie has a horrible unease about the unused room that belonged to ‘her’, where she still feels her presence. The novel takes us back to the early years of Sylvie and Guy’s marriage, when after an experience of loss, they have a little girl, but this is not Emma, this is Elodie. Sylvie describes an immediate, fierce love that she feels for her daughter. Elodie is perfect, with a little heart shaped face and eyes that develop into two distinct colours. One eye is almost amber and full of life, whereas the other remains blue with a deadness to it that is disconcerting. Her eyes are an outward signal of a duality in Elodie’s personality, part of her is loving and engaged with life but Sylvie also sees a side that is disobedient, manipulative and out of step with other people’s emotions.
I was so infuriated for Sylvie that Greg simply doesn’t see the same things she does, at times it feels like he’s being deliberately obtuse. He’s away so much with work and only seems to see the cute side of Elodie as she nestles in his lap. He sees her as an overwhelmed Mum, seeing something that isn’t there or overreacting to normal childhood naughtiness. Elodie’s outbursts do seem personal. She takes an inlaid wood jewellery box given to Sylvie by her father and carves an E deep into the lid. One day Sylvie finds her intent on something in the garden and finds she has eviscerated a small lizard. Finally, she visits a specialist who mentions the word I was already thinking – psychopathy. He explains that some children are born with a difference to the amygdala in the brain which leaves them unable to comprehend or recognise emotion. They need extra stimulus in order to feel. His assessment is that Elodie is one of those people, some grow out of the behaviour, whereas others remain unable to connect and display violent behaviour. Sylvie is devastated. This is her little girl, she would die for her, but has just had to admit that she’s afraid of her too. In the meantime, my tension is rising, because as I’m reading this devastating diagnosis I’m also wondering what Elodie’s reaction was when Emma was born.
The relationship between Sylvie and her daughter is so intense that it’s no wonder she still feels her presence in the family home. Emma wants information about her older sister and remonstrates with Sylvie; ‘
‘she was my sister, but I know barely anything about her, she died, you and Dad split up. We came to London. That’s it.’
It seems inevitable now they’re here that they will have to address the past. In the day Emma is finding Elodie’s old clothes, is wearing her turquoise necklace, but at night she’s on edge and scared there’s someone in the garden. Sylvie feels her too, almost as if she’s there, but has flitted just out of sight. Even their conversation about her hangs in the air like a spectre, wearing the glowing white sundress Emma has found.
‘Do you think her ghost might be here at La Reverie? The loosed words swirl in the gloom, bright and unearthly, like phosphorescence’.
Then, after a day out with their friend Olivier, and with the sulphurous smell of forest fires hanging in the air, they arrive back at La Reverie and Emma’s eyes suddenly come alive as a figure appears on the drive. Expecting her to blow away with the smoke, Sylvie’s thoughts race as her past and present collides into each other. It’s her. Could it be Elodie?
When I finished this novel I found I’d been holding my jaw really tight. Waiting for the past to reveal itself and others to see what Sylvie can is gripping. As the second part of the book begins we have another game of cat and mouse unfolding. It made me think about the lengths we would go to in order to protect our child and what it would take to change or override that instinct. How can we continue that protection, if it is at the expense of our other children? There are ghosts at La Reverie, not just the ghost of the Elodie who disappeared, but the Elodie that Sylvie and Greg expected when she first came into the world. Perhaps even before that, to the hope they had when that first flicker of life was felt after so much sadness.