#RandomThingsTours #blogtour #TheCryOfTheLake
Firstly I was drawn in by the beautiful cover art on this novel. The red title contrasting sharply with the shades of grey background, and a human skull eerily visible against the flock wallpaper pattern. Even the blurb is fascinating and magical, as a young girl tries to capture a mermaid in the pond at the bottom of the garden. She’s been told stories of Myrtle the mermaid with a crown of flowers singing ‘as I went down to the river to pray’. However, instead of Myrtle she finds a dead body. Confused and terrified she learns to take the memory and lock it away deep inside her mind. Yet, still she sees the mermaid in dreams, luring her down to the water with her beautiful singing voice. She sleepwalks and finds herself out in the garden at night, barefoot and cold from the dew on the grass. In order to stop these ‘night terrors’ she is medicated. Although she is a maelstrom of emotions and experiences Lily will not talk. Ten years down the line Lily’s mother Grace is marrying Tony, who has his own teenage daughter Flo. Flo and Lily strike up a friendship despite Lily’s silence and find ways of communicating through text and scribbles on notepads. When Flo’s father is accused of killing a schoolgirl, the girls join forces to find out what’s really happened, but this opens up Lily’s past. Now she must force herself back to that boathouse in order to unearth what really happened and who is responsible.
The author has written a great debut here where she skilfully wrong foots the reader and subverts expectation. That very first line – ‘Death smells of macaroons’ – it drew me into the story. I knew it was going to be sugary sweet on the surface with a nasty aftertaste – a description that suits our narrator Grace perfectly. From the cover I was expecting an older setting, but this is as modern as it gets. Small details, such as Grace dressing from the Joules catalogue, or the teenagers coming into the cafe for Frappuccino’s set this firmly within the 21st Century. The author also places terrible and disturbing events in beautiful, lush countryside full of wild garlic and bluebells. The setting is idyllic, but the events are far from it. I had the sense of the opening of Dorian Gray where something lush and overblown like lilies or lilacs, give out a scent is so strong it’s cloying.
The jump from one narrator to another kept me on my toes too. I did get confused from time to time about who was who, especially when we moved back and forth in time. The characters are fascinating. We meet Lily and her mum Grace as they are coming to an exciting time in their lives. Grace is about to be engaged to Tom and she is the perfect girlfriend, with a plan for a traditional wedding. She and Lily live in a cottage and work in Tom’s cafe. Grace doesn’t want them to live together until they’re married. She thinks pre-marital sex would be a bad example for their daughters. Of course Lily also has health problems. She has selective mutism, and a sleep disorder causing sleepwalking and night terrors that need heavy medication. Tom’s daughter Flo gets along really well with Lily, and has encouraged her to communicate using texts. They also get along well in the village, the only fly in the ointment, as far as Grace is concerned, is Tom’s ex Annie the local police woman. It slowly becomes clear that she has deliberately lured Tom away from Annie and feels threatened by their easy intimacy and connection, as well as Annie’s continued friendship with Flo.
Grace is simply trying too hard though. Lily thinks she dresses like she’s colour blind or she copies the model in the catalogue exactly. At the village picnic Lily is a amused by how overdressed Grace is – in the catalogue the outfit would have been set off with a fascinator, but Grace has had to contain herself with a ribbon round her straw hat. Whilst Annie rolls up in denim with a carrier bag of corned beef sandwiches and pickled onion Monster Munch, Grace has smoked salmon on vintage china. Everything is just so. Except Flo doesn’t like fish. The reader starts to glimpse beneath this drive for perfection – it is simply a thin veneer covering a much darker heart. Her sugary sweet exterior is as real as her flowing red hair. When schoolgirl Amelie goes missing, Lily knows exactly where she is, because she had to help Grace package her body on the kitchen floor. Grace is as meticulous at cleaning up after the crime as she was at packing a picnic. After disposing of the body, Lily is forced to strip and get in the shower. Then Grace is waiting with hot milk and her pills. Lily’s often so spaced out that she doesn’t know what’s real and what isn’t.
The author reveals that Grace’s adoration of Tom is an act too. In a passage as they snuggle on the sofa, Grace’s real feelings belie her actions:
‘I sat, legs curled up on the sofa, with Tom’s arm draped around my shoulders. The heaviness of his body; the musky scent of his cologne and the graze of his cheek against mine made me feel nauseous. I suppose, if I were forced to be objective, I could see why Annie had been attracted to him and sometimes, when we kissed, the pit of my stomach whirred with a brief flutter of desire. Desire which was quickly followed by a flood of disgust. Tom Marchant was a pathetic liar of a man and every ounce of his being repulsed me.’
This is not just a passing dislike, this is a hatred that runs deep. There is a past here that is complicated and disturbing. Is the key Myrtle the Mermaid? The intriguing event that Lily dreams about and has been in therapy for, way back in the past. This started with a fairytale told to her by Grace and Uncle Frank, accompanied by the folk song Down to the River to Pray. Lily hears snatches of it in her dreams. Again, while this sounds like a beautiful story, it comes about around the time that Lily stopped speaking and Grace’s hair turned white overnight. How lucky the girls were to be looked after by Uncle Frank who ran an institute for mental well-being and was involved with pioneering mental health drugs. Lily was seen by a young junior doctor who used a visualisation method to help her with the feelings that disturbed her. He tells her to imagine somewhere she enjoys, and Lily chooses the aquarium with a treasure chest on the sea floor where she can lock away those memories that disturb her. She chooses a key decorated with a spiders web and mimes locking the chest. Then, when she feels safer, they can slowly unlock the chest and taking out one image at a time to work on. Yet this part of the therapy never happened and Lily was left with all these images locked up inside.
Back at the picnic, the villagers were horrified to find human remains in the lake. Could they belong to Amelie? In the aftermath, Grace agrees that they should all be together, so she and Lily stay over with Tom and Flo. Next morning Flo is horrified to find her beloved fish all dead in the garden pond, the telltale blue of slug pellets lingering on the bottom. Flo calls Annie and she comes out to question everyone. Grace and Tom seem oddly tense, but Flo remembers seeing pond scum on the floor and didn’t Grace put Lily in a shower in the night? As the study the pond Annie sees something else submerged in the rushes. It’s a bundle of shoes, tied together with a pair of knickers and it looks incriminating. There’s no option but to question Tom, remove phones and laptops and start to ask if anyone has noticed Tom getting a little too close to one of his students. Annie isn’t so sure. She confides in Flo that she can’t investigate the case, but she’s suspicious that it all looks a bit too cut and dried. Also, if you were really trying to keep evidence hidden, why would you draw attention to it by committing another crime?
There’s never a moment to to stop and contemplate though. The different perspectives and timelines keep revealing new clues and new horrors. There were times where I had to go back and reread a section to be sure I’d got the right sequence of events, especially where people’s names have changed. That’s mainly because the story is addictive and the pace is relentless. Over 24 hours I was rarely without my head in this book because I was so involved in all the little twists and turns. I wanted to understand how Lily and Grace had become so psychologically disturbed. I had a hunch that Lily would start to make more sense once Grace stopped giving her such strong medication. I also sensed she was a lot stronger than she thought, but the gaslighting kept her in doubt. I was fascinated in finding out what had formed Grace’s personality and sometimes drove her to be so cruel and cunning. I couldn’t stop reading until the tangled web was unravelled. Until Lily’s treasure chest of memories was unlocked and she was able to speak freely again. You will want to keep reading until she does. This is a tale about the heart of darkness, in the beautiful country village that’s an urban dweller’s dream; original, addictive and deliciously, darkly funny.