Last year, Amanda Jennings book The Cliff House was one of books I’d most enjoyed for its wonderful sense of place, complex characters and gripping storyline. I was so excited to be offered the chance to read her new novel with NetGalley and I’ve spent the last two days utterly gripped by the story of Hannah. Hannah lives a life that a lot of people wish for: the big historic house; a handsome husband who’s in demand as a lawyer; enough money not to work, spending her hours walking her dog in the picturesque countryside and tend her garden. Her husband Nathan is attentive, and takes her to the best restaurants, brings her flowers and gifts of jewellery not because it’s her birthday, but ‘just because’. Yet, Hannah is deeply unhappy and plagued by memories of the past self she lost long ago. To get to the bottom of Hannah’s unhappiness we need to see behind the walls of her beautiful home and back to the late 1990s when she was carefree, working in her parent’s bakery and in love with a boy called Cam Stewart.
The book is split into different viewpoints and timelines, so the story is drip fed slowly with past events informing the present as we go along. The chapters are those pesky short ones that make you think ‘just one more’ until it’s 2am! This was definitely one of those situations when I had a good book and no respect for tomorrow. Through Hannah’s eyes we see the current state of her marriage to Nathan Cardew. What outsiders see as attentive, we can now see is control. Nathan’s family have lived in Cornwall for generations, but it is also the place where Nathan’s father committed suicide in his study by blowing his head off with a shotgun. This terrible incident could be the reason behind Nathan’s behaviour, but he is a classic insecure psychological abuser. Hannah and their son Alex are controlled down to the minute. Hannah does not drive, holds no credit cards or money in her own right and is not permitted to work. As far as Nathan is aware she has no friends, but behind his back she meets Vicky, her friend from their teenage years, just once a fortnight. They meet in the local cafe and Vicky brings Hannah the cigarettes she secretly smokes under a tree near her house. She has had to learn to cover her tracks well, because at teatime (at 5pm sharp) Nathan will ask for the return of his card and receipts for all the shopping she has done, down to the last penny. Nathan controls every area of Hannah’s life from her access to money and the outside world, to what she wears, and when they have sex. Yet Hannah tells the reader that she chose this, that marriage to Nathan was a choice and her own fault.
Hannah’s narration slips back to 1998, and the small fishing port of Newlyn where her parents have a bakery. By day she works in the bakery and at night she goes out with Vicky, visits the local pub and falls in love with a boy who works on a trawler. Cam has lived with local couple Sheila and Martin and their son Davy for many years. Both Cam and Davy work as fishermen, but their relationship can be antagonistic because Davy feels that his parents favour Cam. He refers to him as a cuckoo in the nest. Through Cam’s narration we see how he falls in love with the beautiful girl from the bakery. We also see the tough life of the trawler man and the difficult choices he has to make daily between earning a decent wage and putting the men’s lives on the line, especially when he knows a storm is brewing. The men exchange banter and give Cam a good ribbing about his girlfriend, although Davy is perhaps hoping to hit home with his news that Hannah once had a fancy date with Nathan Cardew who is now away working in Paris. Cam doesn’t care, he knows he loves her and they spend cozy evenings tucked away on Cam’s boat on an old sleeping bag. We start to see that Hannah’s current life hinges on one day when a terrible storm threatens the trawler while still out at sea. Cam has a choice, to spend a bit longer out at sea while the catch is good and risk being hit by the storm on their way back to port, or to prioritise their safety and accept a lower payday. His decision leads to a terrible accident that affects the whole crew. Their return to Newlyn culminates in a night out at the pub, where a shocked Cam is in one space with a resentful Davy, Nathan Cardew, who has just returned from Paris, is looking for Hannah, and finally Hannah herself is there with Vicky. The emotional storm that unfolds on this evening is so powerful it shapes all of their lives until the present day and puts the storm they experienced at sea into the shade.
Having been a victim of psychological abuse in a previous relationship, and managing to walk away after five years, I was desperate for Hannah to leave Nathan and walk away with her son Alex. It was the combination of wanting this escape, but also wondering how she got stuck in this relationship in the first place, that pushed me forward and kept me reading. I loved the way that past and present started colliding and Alex was the catalyst for that. Alex starts to question his dad’s behaviour and challenge his rules. Firstly he rebels in small ways such as coming in late for tea or drinking a can of coke in the house. Eventually, the tension comes to a head and having read his mum’s teenage diary Alex puts two and two together and goes looking for Cam. He can’t believe Nathan is his father, and suspects his Mum has kept a secret from him. The truth is the only thing that can create healing in this situation, but it will have to tear apart the status quo before that healing can happen.
Jennings has written another intense and believable psychological thriller, that’s gripping and full of twists and turns. Every character jumps off the page, and I love the detail of Cornwall, a place I love dearly. Hannah and Alex’s ending had a wisdom and integrity to it that I’m sure the author fought for above a more traditional ‘happy’ ending. It felt satisfying while still leaving the door open for what happens next. I have no doubt that this book will be as big a success as her last.