By the time I reached the final pages of this book I realised my face ached and I’d had my teeth clenched! I was so invested in the truth coming out that I was scared to read the end in case it wasn’t what I wanted! I had the book lover’s nightmare of devouring the story like a crazy person to find out, but then holding back because I didn’t want the book to finish. Our heroine is Cass and she has a very comfortable life in her country cottage, with husband Dan. She is very much the home making type, with a comfortable and cozy house and a talent for gardening. She is part of a large circle of friends, active on local committees and very well known. Her friends see her and her and her husband Dan as the couple most likely to stay together. Their daughter Laura is away at university in Birmingham and only comes back home occasionally. Into this situation comes Ellie and what an arrival! At a friend’s informal barbecue, where most are in jeans, Ellie arrives like a femme fatale – red heels, fifties dress and red lipstick. Despite this, she spends a long time chatting with Cass who seems like her polar opposite. Their difference is highlighted when Cass sees Ellie has been reading Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. Cass seems to be more aligned with the second Mrs de Winter, but Ellie is very clear that she would prefer to be Rebecca – the adulteress, the seductress:
‘I adored Rebecca, not giving a damn what anyone thought of her, attacking life, taking what she wanted, all that sexual power…’
I was drawn in by a couple of the author’s references, because they’re very familiar to me. As mentioned above the first was Rebecca, which has fascinated me since I was a little girl and my mum first showed me the Hitchcock film with Laurence Olivier as the mercurial Maxim de Winter, on holiday in the South of France trying to get over the death of his wife Rebecca. Of course it wasn’t till I was older that I fully understood the film, especially the relationship between Max and his new, young wife. As an adult, his treatment of the new Mrs de Winter started to bother me, especially after my own marriage to a man fifteen years my senior. Scenes like the one in Monte Carlo where she says she wishes she was a woman of 36 with a black evening dress and pearls. Max’s response is that if she was, she certainly wouldn’t be there with him. If she says something to displease him he becomes silent, driving faster or recklessly while she apologises, even begs for his forgiveness. She can’t imagine that her gauche, unsophisticated ways would be attractive to him after the dazzling Rebecca. In reality, another Rebecca is the last thing he would want. However, even though Max wants this shy, young girl, he calls her a ‘silly little fool’ as he’s proposing. He is no romantic hero, he’s a classic mental abuser and one of his weapons is gaslighting – the very sort of behaviour that Elizabeth Forbes is highlighting in this book. However, here we’re caught between several characters. We’re never quite sure who is manipulating who?
Gaslight is another excellent black and white film from 1940, where a young heiress is targeted by her new husband. In order to gain control of her money, he subjects her to a campaign of psychological abuse. I remember a gift of jewellery that he surprises her with, he then hides it and asks her to wear it when they’re going out. When she can’t find it he starts a row over her carelessness, but then puts it back where she left it. One of his other tricks is to have the gaslights in the house flicker, but then deny seeing it. Slowly, this poor woman is convinced she’s losing her mind. This is where the term comes from and Forbes writes in her afterword about how common this form of abuse is. Every time you’ve been told you must have imagined it, you’re being hysterical, he didn’t say that, or you’re asked where your sense of humour is? This is gaslighting and as a victim of domestic abuse I’ve been where Cass is in this book – bewildered, frustrated and confused. I think this is why I had such a bodily and visceral reaction to the book. The fact that Forbes has written about this issue with such knowledge and depth contributed to my gritted teeth and mounting frustration.
There are more than a few surprises before readers get to the end of the book and in a sense we are being gaslighted too. At least in the films mentioned, the audience is in on the abuse and know who’s in the wrong. Here we’re never sure if it is even happening, or who’s truth to believe. While Cass is our main narrator, there are anonymous snippets from another character that cast doubt on her version of events. I won’t be revealing any more here, because I want you to experience it as I did. This is one of those books where the reader’s bias and life experience will lead to them seeing it differently. It will be a great book club choice because there is so much to discuss and opinions will change at different points in the novel. For me, this was a fascinating and intelligent read that will keep you up at night, not from fear, but from wanting to know what happens next. Be prepared to lose sleep, and experience a run of emotions from slight concern to suspicion, paranoia and rage. This is dark, twisted and beautifully written. An absolutely brilliant read that comes highly recommended.