One Step Behind by Lauren North. #RandomThingsTours #OneStepBehind

I found myself sucked in very quickly by this narrator and her mysterious story. Jenna is an A and E doctor and appears to have a picture perfect life. She’s well regarded in her work, has a good marriage to builder Stuart, two lovely children and a beautiful Victorian house. They’ve recently adapted downstairs to create a huge living area that opens onto the garden. From the outside she’s living the 21st Century dream, but when we look a little closer it’s not that simple. There’s the mother’s guilt of course, she worries about Beth and Archie and the difficulties of spending enough time with then while working 12 hour shifts. Stuart picks up the slack as he can set his own hours, and they have a great childminder in Christie, but she still worries that she’s selfish in pursuing her career the way she does. They’re proving to be a great parenting team, but sometimes Jenna and Stuart are like ships that pass in the night. Finally, the main cause of stress in her life is an unknown stalker, who has been making her life hell. She is followed, the garden is broken into, dolls and flowers are left for her and the emails, both at work and home are endless. The stress has been so bad she hasn’t been sleeping, she’s becoming paranoid and wants to put the house up for sale and start again elsewhere.

Her narrative is alternated with that of Sophie, a personal trainer who lives with her boyfriend Nick and seems very concerned about the welfare of her younger brother, Matthew. Matt is a bit of an oddball. He seems to wander aimlessly around town taking photos of people, he also seems secretive and uncooperative with his sister. I wondered whether Sophie was a bit of a mother hen character, but they seem to have no other family either. It seemed inevitable that the two narratives would come together in some way, or that one of them might be Jenna’s stalker. However, I couldn’t think of any link between them because Jenna is too young to be their mother and she never mentions brothers and sisters. As the stalker escalates into leaving dressed dolls, and even getting into their home, I started to feel panicky too. I also suspected every person around Jenna, from Thomas who works with her at the hospital and is a little too friendly, all they way to her husband Stuart. Every single male she was in contact with came under my suspicion at different points in the novel. So, when Matthew is brought into A and E after being hit by a bus and she recognises him, I breathed a sigh of relief that maybe her ordeal was over. Could it be that simple?

The author really puts her heroine through the mill in terms of the relationships around her and a series of betrayals. These come to a head on a night out in town for her best friend Diya’s birthday. She had just been told to take a leave of absence from work and she finds out that the complaint made to management about her fitness to practice came from Diya. She is shocked and feels betrayed. She also sees her childminder Christie, with Matt’s sister Sophie and Rachel – a mum from school that she’s sure doesn’t like her. Immediately she wonders if either Christie or Rachel has been helping to keep her stalker informed. However the next morning, an even worse betrayal comes to light. Christie comes round to explain why she was with Rachel, but also to confess to knowing something that will break our Jenna’s heart. This is where she really starts to come apart. Her worse fears are being realised, while her attention has been focused on her job and the stalker, her life has been falling apart around her.

This was a successful story in that it made me feel paranoid and on edge a lot of the way through. I also felt very tense, because I was desperate for Jenna to give herself a break. It was like she was juggling so many plates at once and couldn’t stop. I just wanted her to find a way to get a break, spend more time with those she loved and create some balance in her life. No one could sustain the level of stress she puts herself under. Much as I want to say women can be successful working mums, it’s clear that Jenna’s working hours are unsustainable if she wants a better relationship with her children. I also kept wondering where this couple’s genuine family and friends are? It takes a strong network to sustain a lifestyle this crazy – even without the stalker. It was very clever to keep shifting the possible identity of the stalker. There was a final stand off that made me look at my own biases when it comes to this type of crime and I think that was deliberate on the part of the author. I also realised at the end that I couldn’t remember the name of our protagonist at first, even though she narrated the majority of the book. That tells me a little about how much the character was consumed by her job and the crime being perpetrated against her. It was almost as if, by being constantly watched, she had become invisible to those around her. This was an unsettling, tense and addictive read that explores how childhood trauma affects people in different ways.

Published by thelotusreaders

Hello, I am Hayley and I run Lotus Writing Therapy and The Lotus Readers blog. I am a counsellor, workshop facilitator and avid reader.

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