As some of you may know, reviews can get very personal for me. Probably because I’m a therapist and used to lots of self-reflection. When a book hits me emotionally I really think about why and this book had me scurrying to my journal. Lisa Jewell is a master of these domestic thrillers and the psychological suspense created when groups of people are in conflict. Here the conflict is controlled within one house 16 Cheyne Walk in Chelsea, overlooking the river. That is until it’s secrets explode and the truth of the mystery is scattered across the world.
Three narratives weave in and out of each other to tell the story. We meet twenty five year old Libby with her little garden flat and her job at the kitchen design company where she’s worked for five years. Everything about Libby says organised, professional and quiet. That is until a bombshell is dropped on her life. Woven with this is the story of Lucy – if that is her real name. She is living in France but at the moment we meet her is homeless along with her two children and the dog. The family are reduced to sneaking in to the beach club to get showered but that doesn’t happen everyday. Lucy is at rock bottom. She can’t husk for money but needs money to collect her violin. They have nothing left to sell. Does she go and ask her violent but rich ex-husband for help? Or does she let the children stay with their grandparents? Either way she needs her violin and once she sees the date, she develops an urgent need to make her way back to London and a certain house in Chelsea.
Our third narrator is Henry, relating what happened at the house back in the early 1990s. Henry just about remembers family life when things were normal and it was just the four of them: mum, dad, Henry and his sister. He has vivid memories of going to private school in his brown knickerbockers and sitting drinking lemonade while his Dad read the newspaper at his club. The house was filled with curiosities such as animal heads, ceremonial swords and red thrones. It’s so distinctive in style that when the money starts to run out the house is scouted as a location for a music video. The fiddle player in the band is Birdie and she loves the house. So much so that when she needs a roof over their head, she and her partner, Justin, come to stay in the upstairs room. Henry’s father has had a stroke and doesn’t have the same strength and power he used to have. He seems to sit by and watch as Birdie and Justin take up residence.
Later another couple join the group. David Thomsen is a man Henry dislikes almost instantly because he seems to sense what his Dad and Justin fail to see. David has charisma and seems to have an effect on every woman in the house. His wife Sally and two children, Phin and Clemency, also join them. It starts to feel like they’re living in a commune but the only consolation is Phin. To Henry, Phin is beautiful with floppy hair, cheekbones and a distinctive style. When Phin takes him shopping, Henry develops a crush and trails after him, wanting to be like him. When it is suddenly announced at the dinner table that David and Birdie are now a couple Henry senses this is the start of something evil. They bring out the worst elements of each other and start to assume a power in the house that goes unchallenged by his parents or the other adults. They are told what they will eat, do and even wear. Henry knows this is out of control and this is only the beginning of the damage this man will inflict in the house.
Libby has been set a letter by a group of solicitors telling her she has been left a house. When the solicitor walks her round to the house she realises she is rich. The house is abandoned, but huge and in prime position. It could be worth millions. The solicitor also gives her a newspaper cutting describing the strange events that took place there exactly twenty five years before. Libby has always known she was adopted, but this tells her she was the lone survivor in the house, tucked in her cot with a lucky rabbits foot under the mattress. Downstairs were three people, dressed all in black and dead from poisoning themselves with belladonna. One was David Thomsen. The news story talks of a cult forming within the house and aside from Libby, whose real name is Serenity, all the children living at the house were missing. Libby feels there is more to this story and wants to meet the journalist who wrote the article. What is the answer to how this happened? And who is sneaking in and out of the attic space at the house?
There are so many questions that I won’t answer for fear of ruining the book, but I will tell you about the effect it had on me. When I was 12, the same age as Henry, my parents joined an evangelical church that became all-consuming and took over our lives for a few years. Up until then we’d been part-time Catholic’s and I’d gone to Catholic school for a while through my first confession and communion. These new people felt weird. They were so fervent and all that speaking in tongues was odd. But it got worse. My parents started to have no other social life from church. We were forced into church activities for kids. My dad lit a bonfire and they burned their secular music and all of my mum’s ‘inappropriate ‘ books like the Judith Krantz and Jackie Collins novels. I was scared by this. I started to wonder who my parents were as I was more restricted on what I wore, listened to and read. I couldn’t go to anything where there was a sniff of boys and from what I could see there was a lot of coercive control over women and girls particularly. I felt Henry’s fear when reading this book. I know what it feels to be a kid, looking at your parents and thinking they’ve been taken in by something dangerous. That beliefs are being forced on you and you can’t live like other kids. To feel like all of your security is being taken away.
Of course my solution wasn’t as dramatic as Henry’s but I did have to create coping mechanisms. There are times now when we can laugh about it, because as my brother and I have grown older we have become one of those families that openly discuss everything. However, I still occasionally have dreams where my parents can’t see or hear me and I think it has also bred a lifelong mistrust of authority. So I can understand the seismic effect the arrival of Dave Thomsen had on these children, with repercussions way into adult life. Whether it’s changing who you are to escape, or bouncing from one failed relationship to another or being unable to move on, even geographically, they are all responses to trauma. With a brief nod to the future at the end of the book the author does leave a tiny seed of hope that in future generations a type of healing can be reached. This is a dark, disturbing, look at how sometimes home is the most dangerous place to be.