One of the first things my therapy supervisor said to me was ‘no two kids have the same childhood, even those who grow up together’. This kept going through my mind as I started to read Liz Webb’s book and grew ever more apt as the story unfolded. As regular readers know I do like to indulge in a good thriller and despite knowing nothing about the book or the author, something drew me in when I read the blurb. I’m so glad I took the chance to read it because it is a dark, psychological, and unsettling domestic noir based around the violent death of the charismatic mum in the Davidson family. Hannah doesn’t always have her life on track and she lives away from her physicist father Phillip, but is called when he ends up in hospital. Now suffering with Alzheimer’s and at the end of his life, Hannah has to make a tough choice; does she leave him in the hands of strangers or should she be the one to nurse him in his final months? It’s not long before Hannah finds herself back home and falling into a time warp. Not only has her father left the decorating and furnishings back in the 1990’s, there are piles of magazines and other detritus still littering the same place. It’s as if he stopped when his wife Jennifer was found in the woods at the back of the house, with a kitchen knife plunged into her chest. Hannah finds her surroundings bringing memories and inevitable questions to the forefront of her mind; no one was ever charged for her mum’s murder. This house is haunted. Her mum’s most successful photographs are still hung on the walls and her dark room is untouched, the wardrobe is full of her colourful clothes with the ghost of Chanel No 5. Just the faintest trace touches the air when Hannah runs a hand over her mother’s clothes. Hannah’s very presence completes the picture, she’s a waif compared to the overweight woman she’s been for most of her life. Now she’s the image of her mum, so much so that an unexpected glimpse in a mirror makes her jump. Her brother Ryan, now a famous actor, has commented on her ‘stuckness’, her inability to move beyond that day in the 1990’s. Hannah doesn’t think she’ll ever be able to move forward and pursue a life for herself, until she can resolve what truly happened that day and who killed her mother.
I did find myself rooting for Hannah, despite her flaws and her past behaviour – with more revelations popping up when I didn’t expect them. She feels more vulnerable and is honest about how broken she is by the past. The author carefully keeps her on that edge so I was mostly on board with her version of events, but every now and again I would question whether she was truly a reliable narrator. There was her drinking and the impression she has of her family life and her mother. She sees her mother as a beautiful free spirit, with her gorgeous rainbow clothes, her glamorous and creative career as a photographer with it’s world of gallery openings and meeting other artists. She sees her parents as very different, her father being much older and in a more steady career as a physics professor. When her parents couldn’t be there, Mrs Roberts and her husband from next door would step in with her more old-fashioned parenting style and her good looking son Marcus. This return home and her father’s deterioration seem to trigger something in Hannah and her brother is convinced she’s in a downward spiral where her mental health is concerned. He now stars in a BBC murder mystery series based in Spain, where his wise-cracking detective solves murders within the ex-Pat community and has famous co-stars happy to swap a guest starring role for a week in the sun. He’s also written a book titled Solving Me which Hannah thinks is pompous at best, but probably arrogant and a potential challenge. His childhood is peppered with incidents of their parents arguing, usually about their mother’s behaviour and he’s completely convinced that their father murdered her after years of being pushed too far.
I loved how the author balanced the story with the darkness and tension, broken by the realties of being a carer and the humorous little allusions to her father’s research subject. Their pets are named after Feynmann (the dog) and Schrödinger (the cat of course) á la Sheldon’s cats in The Big Bang Theory. The Schrödinger reference is very apt with Hannah alluding to their mother as potentially living and dead at the same time. For years her head has been full of simultaneous movie reels, each one with a different ending to the story, she would love to be able to shut down all those other screens and see what really happened. The caring details, everything she’ll need to bring Dad home from the hospital, are spot on. One detail I loved because it showed experience, or at least talking to those with it, and it was the ‘shit-stained’ sole of her father’s foot visible to to a person standing at the bottom of the bed but often missed by the busy healthcare assistant doing this morning’s strip wash. The investigation she conducts gives her a lot more questions about her mother, as she remembers her. She’s warned by the original detective on the case that she might not like what she finds. Even her mum’s art seems to hold clues: the close-ups of tiny domestic objects till it’s hard to know what they are; the fascination with motorcycle stuntman Evil Knieval and the moment of being in free fall; an entire series called Falling showing objects in that moment before they land. What she seemed to forget is that Evil Knieval’s stunts finally went too far with disastrous consequences. As the revelations about Jennifer Davidson begin the story becomes even more fascinating, because Hannah gets to see the person her mum was before becoming a parent and whether motherhood changed her at all. I enjoyed the interplay between the siblings and was engrossed in finding out whose version of events was closer to the truth. This was incredibly well-written, tense and psychologically very clever. It left me thinking about how others see our parents and who they truly are when they’re not being mum and dad.
Meet the Author
Liz Webb originally trained as a classical dancer, then worked as a secretary, stationery shop manager, art class model, cocktail waitress, stand-up comic, voice-over artist, script editor and radio drama producer, before becoming a novelist. She lives in North London with her husband, son and serial killer cat Freddie.