Jenna is trying to rebuild her life after a series of disastrous relationships. Luke is struggling to provide a safe, loving home for his deceased partner’s young son, following a devastating tragedy. When Jenna and Luke meet and fall in love, they are certain they can achieve the stability and happiness they both desperately need.
And yet, someone is watching. Someone who has been scarred by past events. Someone who will stop at nothing to get revenge…
I was looking forward to this latest novel from Michael Malone, because he writes intelligent thrillers that unfold at their own pace. Some thrillers move so quickly I have to re-read the ending to work out what happened, but he never prioritises action or quick shocks over the story or development of character. This grounded and realistic way of letting the story unfold is what really works about his writing and I was eager to get started. Loss and the ways it affects generations of families is the central theme of this latest novel, where we meet Luke who has just lost his partner and become sole parent to his young stepson. Luke is trying to cope with his own grief while supporting his stepson and trying to establish his own counselling practice. However, there are other losses in Luke’s past, some of which he’d rather not revisit. He had terrible car accident as a young man which left his best friend dead. While we’re wondering about Luke’s version of the accident and exactly what was going on between him and his friend, he starts working with a new client. When she was a teenager, Jenna had a boyfriend who was killed. She still feels bad over where their relationship was when she lost him, because she had doubts about being with him and there were huge secrets she hadn’t shared with him. Jenna isn’t sure whether Luke is the counsellor for her and doesn’t book another appointment with him. Does Luke pursue his client and is his interest purely in helping her?
Grief has kept him away from the therapy room, but now Luke needs to prioritise creating a reasonable income for him and stepson to live on. He takes a client by the name of Jamie, but is Jamie who Luke thinks he is? From a counsellor’s perspective Luke doesn’t have great boundaries and the counsellor in me could see he was setting himself up for costly law suits or a hearing about his professional standards and fitness to practice. He sees Jenna after she was a patient and thinks they have a spark, but can he pursue feelings for her without repercussions? He also spends time with Jamie outside of sessions and even trusts him with his stepson incredibly quickly. Luke doesn’t allow time for a person’s character to reveal itself and instead depends on his own gut when making judgements about others, but that judgement seems impaired. He isn’t consulting with a supervisor and we don’t see him consulting his ethical framework. The three basic principles of counselling are empathy, unconditional positive regard and authenticity and while Luke certainly has skills in the first two areas, his authenticity is non-existent.
Luke has secrets. In fact he has a link to his clients that’s hidden and not just from the reader either. Luke isn’t being honest with himself about who he is and while counsellors shouldn’t tell clients their life story, his background should have been disclosed to his professional body. How can Luke expect a client to trust him, when he isn’t even honest with himself? He’s not being authentic in his own life and relationships. Jenna is looking forward to working on herself when she arrives at Luke’s garden counselling room, but something stops her from returning. It’s when they later form a friendship that Luke might have discussed his past, but he doesn’t. Luke does have some great counselling qualities and is an incredible stepfather, but its almost as if he feels these life changes have cancelled out everything that went before. His past unveils itself like a set of Russian dolls, each one looking finished, but with yet more revelations to come. What he ultimately learns is that by compartmentalising certain experiences and keeping secrets, he has even been kept from the full truth about his own actions and could have been saved from years of self-criticism and guilt.
Malone is brilliant at creating characters, with unexpected pasts and incredibly human flaws. I love that conflict his characters create within me about who I’m rooting for and why. Jamie’s sister Amanda feels incredibly vengeful, but there’s some empathy in me for the way she was changed forever by a series of losses when she was a child. Having lost her family she is buffeted about by the care system and further separated from her brother Jamie. Her entire energy is focused on revenge and she manages to pull Jamie into her machinations by triggering his guilt for getting an easier ride as a child. Jamie is torn between loyalty to his sister and anger at the people he’s been told are responsible and on the opposite side, his own more measured judgement on events and the people he meets on her quest for revenge. It’s clever how Malone links everyone in the book and carefully drip feeds information on them, allowing our opinion to twist and turn. There are sequences that are meandering, letting us find out piece by piece what happened in the past, or slowly revealing a character. Then there are gripping events that have your heart racing and the pages turning quicker so you can find out what happens next. Every single character is bogged down in the quicksand of the title, trying to shake free from those historic events that trigger disturbing memories. Only when they resolve these memories can they start to live in the present and they are all at a different point in their journeys. Counsellors believe that every client is capable of change and I like the way that this hope of resolution is woven into the book, even for those characters who think themselves irredeemable. This is another complex, gripping and emotionally intelligent work from Malone who is fast becoming one of my ‘go to’ writers.
Published 9th December 2021 Orenda Books
Michael Malone is a prize-winning poet and author who was born and brought up in the heart of Burns’ country. He has published over 200 poems in literary magazines throughout the UK, including New Writing Scotland, Poetry Scotland and Markings. Blood Tears, his bestselling debut novel won the Pitlochry Prize from the Scottish Association of Writers. His psychological thriller, A Suitable Lie, was a number-one bestseller, and the critically acclaimed House of Spines, After He Died, In the Absence of Miracles and A Song of Isolation soon followed suit. A former Regional Sales Manager (Faber & Faber) he has also worked as an IFA and a bookseller. Michael lives in Ayr.