I read this novel on the four hour drive to North Wales and spent most of the first day of my holiday absolutely enthralled with the story. I was hooked immediately, intrigued by the mystery of what exactly Tess’s daughter Poppy had seen or heard. Tess is starting a new life in a garden flat with her daughter, after a divorce from husband Jason. Having a background as a child of divorce, Tess was determined that Poppy should be their number one priority. No matter how much animosity and hurt they feel, their interaction with each other must be civil and they prioritise time with both parents. Jason is already remarried to Emily, a much younger woman who seems very sweet and tries hard to have a relationship with Poppy. They have set times for Poppy to visit and stay over at her dad’s house and this has been going well, although every time Poppy’s belongings are put in a bag to transfer from one house to the other, Tess hopes she understands what is happening to her. Tess has started seeing a man called Aidan recently and she’s optimistic about their relationship so far. One Saturday, Poppy returns from an overnight at her father’s and displays signs of distress. These were classic symptoms, that any counsellor like me, would be concerned by. She’s clingy, she wets the bed and seems to be having nightmares. Over a week these symptoms worsen: she bites a girl at school, uses foul language to her teacher, and her mother is terrified for her. She has her attention drawn to a picture Poppy has drawn, all in black crayon which is a huge contrast from her normal rainbow creations. The picture shows a tower and a woman falling from the top to the ground below. ‘He killed her’ she tells her Mum ‘and killed and killed and killed’.
I was hooked and my partner claims I barely spoke to him for two days straight because I was so absorbed in Poppy’s world. Tess is scared for her daughter, but what can she actually do without traumatising her further? Jason insists it’s just a drawing and probably doesn’t mean anything. No one seemed as alarmed as Tess, so who can she go to? This sets in motion an enthralling story where my suspicions were first sent in one direction, then another. As well as suspecting every character at different points in the novel, I was also wondering whether it was about Tess. Was she an over concerned mother affected by her divorce and her ex-husband’s sudden remarriage? The writer excels at bringing tiny little clues into the narrative that create a doubt in the reader’s mind. Bernie, the upstairs neighbour, is a little odd and makes a couple of remarks to Tess that concerned me. Was he dangerous or just a little eccentric and inappropriate at times? Weird coincidences cropped up that couldn’t be explained by anything except foul play or malicious intent. However, the more this happened, Tess became even more anxious and started to give the impression of being unhinged. As the police became involved, they suspected an overprotective mother and couldn’t find anything to investigate. This spurred Tess on to carry out her own investigation, searching for women who’d died falling from a building and trying to forge links with people in their circle. One sympathetic officer does try to help, but ends up with a dressing down for wasting her time. It takes a long time, and some near misses, for Tess to sit back and realise what her behaviour must look like from the outside. However, just because someone appears over anxious, doesn’t mean there’s nothing to worry about.
I think one of these author’s many strengths is their ability to conjure up the ordinary everyday moments we all recognise in life, between the tension and scares. It helps the reader identify with these characters, to accept that they’re real and empathise even more with their predicament. I could feel the tension coming off Tess, and the hurt as well, because some of her discoveries are personally painful. Yet she still has to get Poppy up and to school, then go to work and come home to cook tea and do those domestic chores that we all do in a day. The mental load of being a single parent is enough without the extra suspicions about every new person who has come into their circle. Her fear that someone has invaded that safe, domestic space is one all readers can identify with. The tension is almost unbearable towards our final revelation and it wasn’t the ending I was expecting at all. It makes you think about how far you would go to protect your children. This was a fascinating, addictive read with a menacing atmosphere throughout. Be prepared to lose a couple of days if you pick up this book, you won’t regret it.
Published on 16th September 2021 by Simon and Schuster UK
Nicci French is the pseudonym of English husband-and-wife team Nicci Gerrard and Sean French, who write psychological thrillers together.