There’s a lot packed into this complex thriller about human relationships, traumatic childhoods, damaged adults, social justice, and the differences between those who are deemed to be respectable and those society deems outcasts. It’s an addicting and sometimes uncomfortable read, but it’s themes pour scorn on those who dismiss genre fiction as having nothing important to say. Across two timelines, one current and one a year in the past, we follow our main character Nell. Currently she’s homeless and her lover, Joe, has disappeared into the night with a well- groomed older woman. Nell tracks them to a tiny house, almost impossibly narrow, and invisible from certain points in the street. It’s a three storey, possibly Victorian town house and must be worth a fortune. Waiting impatiently for Joe to emerge she spends her last handful of change on a cup of tea in order to sit in the warmth of a cafe. The only person who comes out is a young girl with a blonde plait hanging over her shoulder. As she comes in for a drink Nell makes a choice to go over and talk to her and finds out she’s been interviewed for a position as assistant to the house owner – a man. In her desperation to find Joe, Nell decides she needs to get inside that house and comes up with a plan.
In her past, Nell has been in the care system, ending up in a group home in Wales with a foster carer called Megan Flack. She is a career rather than a vocational carer, collecting the money but rarely doing the job. She is neglectful at best, but there’s much more going on under the surface. Nell has learned to look after a home because she was always picking up the slack with housework, cooking and mothering the younger children, particularly the cute 6year old Rosie who clings to Nell. When Joe first arrives at the home Nell is knocked sideways by how beautiful he is. Two teenagers under one roof, with plenty of time to themselves creates the perfect opportunity and they are soon joined at the hip. In the heat of the summer they go bathing at a nearby pool, but Joe doesn’t always want the younger kids there and Nell is having to make hard choices. What has happened to cause the pair to flee their foster home? They end up in London, sleeping on the streets, until one night Joe disappears into Starling Villas.
The book’s structure is clever and works really well to pace the action and build tension. We learn a little bit more about the present, then go back into the past; a past that constantly updates and informs the present again. There was a growing sense of unease, as I got further into the book. I was never sure who was truly playing who. Caroline was unnerving and hard to like, because she never seemed to show any vulnerability. Megan was worse though; cold,manipulative and completely without empathy. The thought that there are people like this looking after children who are already traumatised and suffering from attachment issues. There was a social conscience here. The fact that a magistrate, a man who decides the fate of children like this, can be licentious and exploitative behind closed doors shouldn’t be a surprise, but somehow it was. There was something about Robin that I trusted, despite all the evidence to the contrary. We all know that status is conveyed according to how people appear and what they own. We might automatically assume that the well-read man living at Starling Villas is a fine, upstanding citizen. We also might assume that those brought up in the care system, the homeless and the hopeless, are capable of just about anything. What did drive Nell and Joe to pack and leave Wales, so suddenly? Why is Megan still seeking them out?
Nell is a wonderful character, all tough exterior but marshmallow inside. Her vulnerability is evident in her interactions with Robin, her new employer. She’s a hard worker, trained by a foster mother who seems to have hated some of her charges as much as doing anything that made her break a sweat. Nell’s been a mother figure at an age when she still needed one herself. She’s used to making a home too, making the best of the meagre things she can find to enhance her surroundings and lift her spirits. She’s tough enough to survive most things, even a winter on the streets in the capital, but the things that have happened to her still haunt her mentally. She’s been let down so many times it shouldn’t hurt anymore, but it does, especially when she’s let her guard down and softened slightly. Even though some of her behaviour is morally questionable, she’s so young and has had so few chances in life, I found myself rooting for her. The author’s knowledge about a childhood spent in care and what it can do to the rest of your life shows research, listening to personal accounts and experience. Not everybody survives, some will be institutionalised for the rest of their lives, while those who do survive the system don’t always leave unscathed. I think this was represented so well through the characters in this novel. Thankfully, not all foster parents are like Megan Flack.
This was a great read, compelling and difficult to put down once you’re hooked by the story. Every character has nuance and flaws, meaning in both the past and current narrative, you’re never quite sure who to trust or what to believe. I was haunted by little Rosie, just like Nell is. The author has created an addictive thriller, but given it heart and poignancy too. I was completely drawn in until the very last page and the ending was beautifully written.
Meet The Author
Sarah Hilary’s debut novel, Someone Else’s Skin, won the 2015 Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year and was a World Book Night selection. The Observer’s Book of the Month (‘superbly disturbing’) and a Richard and Judy Book Club bestseller, it has been published worldwide. No Other Darkness, the second in the series, was shortlisted for a Barry Award in the U.S. Her D.I. Marnie Rome series continues with Tastes Like Fear, Quieter Than Killing, Come and Find Me, and Never Be Broken. Fragile is her first standalone novel. –This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.