Ever since reading Lisa Jewell’s novel The Family Upstairs I’ve been hoping she’d write a sequel. The book was certainly satisfying as a standalone, but the characters were so complex and their situation so traumatic I was certain it would bubble up to the surface sooner or later. Detective Samuel Owusu thinks the same, when human remains are found washed up on the banks of the Thames by a mud lark. When he sends the bones for forensic examination it’s clear that she was murdered; there’s an injury to the skull that could only have come from blunt force trauma. The other clue from the bag is a mulch of leaves, unusual ones for London, taking him to a mansion house in Chelsea. There, thirty years ago, three people were found dead in a kitchen and upstairs was an unharmed baby girl with a rabbit’s foot tucked into her cot. The clues are pointing to two missing teenagers, Henry and Lucy Lamb, belonging to two of the deceased. Yet, neighbours had said they hadn’t seen the children for years. We follow DCI Owusu’s investigation, but also this missing brother and sister who are doing some investigating of their own. They’re looking for a third teenager, Phinneas Thomsen, son of the third deceased adult and also a resident of the Chelsea mansion, hoping he can make sense of their childhood. Why was the Thames body separate from the other three and what was her link to the adults living there? The house has just sold for over seven million pounds and it’s owner is a young woman called Libby, so she must be their first port of call. This is just the first step in untangling a very dark web of trauma, murder and a family who have tried to bury secrets that just won’t stay dead.
Lisa Jewell really is the master of this domestic noir genre. She could have plodded along, unravelling secrets from long ago and it would still have been a very good book. However, she doesn’t take the easy option, she chooses to introduce new characters and storylines that are equally compelling and link into to the Cheyenne Walk mystery. As well as Samuel, Henry and Lucy narrating the story, we have a woman called Rachel narrating a present day storyline too. Rachel is a jeweller, just waiting for a big store to pick up her designs and thrust her work into the limelight. After years of dating and not finding the one, she meets a man called Michael who seems almost perfect for her. He is attractive, attentive, wealthy and seems available emotionally, which makes a change from other men she’s dated. He’s been married before, to a woman he met while she was busking in France and he was staying at his home in Antibes. Rachel doesn’t really pry into his past and all Michael volunteers is that she was musical and ‘a nightmare.’ Her name was Lucy. In a whirlwind, Rachel and Michael get married and she’s of an age where people don’t tend to take you aside and ask if its all moving a bit fast. Perhaps friends are just glad that this has finally happened for her and her father seems happy for her too, believing Michael to be that rare thing – an older, unmarried, great bloke. On honeymoon, amongst the rose petal strewn sheets and days spent reading by the ocean, Rachel thinks she might suggest a bit of fun in the bedroom. She’s happy with vanilla sex, but wonders if some light BDSM games might bring variety. She unpacks some special underwear, some ties and a leather whip and is looking forward to a fun night, but Michael looks embarrassed, then furious. He flies into a rage, accusing her of having no class, sleeping around and ruining their honeymoon. Rachel is bewildered as he storms off to sleep separately and refuses to talk about it. All she can hope is that he calms down, but she is starting to feel like she must apologise, although she doesn’t really know why. How can she return from her honeymoon and tell anyone her husband is disgusted by her?
I loved how these four narratives were interwoven, because they cleverly show us how abuse in all it’s forms leaves it’s legacy. Whether it’s self-hatred and body dysmorphia, a deep seated rage thats ready to boil over, or a desperate need for love and a tendency to repeat the patterns of childhood. I thought Rachel’s story was particularly compelling, because I’ve experienced that pattern of abuse – the love bombing, rejection, gaslighting and fits of rage. I hated Michael and really understood her need to find Lucy and talk to her. It felt like she’d lost the ability to trust her own judgement, so if there was someone else he was abusive to, she could start to accept and own her own truth. Her confidence had sunk so low she was struggling to fight for herself, but as soon as Michael’s behaviour affected someone else she loved she was able to stand up to him. Henry is also struggling with what happened in childhood, his twisted and confused emotions surrounding Phinn were complex. Phinn was held up as an example of what a boy should be, with Henry receiving punishments and neglect for not being more like him. We might expect Henry to feel hatred and even harbour harmful thoughts about Phinn, and to an extent he does feel these things. There’s a part of him that never wants to see Phinn again. However, there is a part of him that is still the little boy who wants to please, so he has changed the way he looks and now looks at Phinn in the mirror every morning. There’s definitely an element of hero worship and sexual desire too. I was actually scared of what Henry might do if he ever found Phinn, who is thought to be working on a game reserve in Africa. Lucy is living with her brother at the start of the book, along with her two children. Henry’s upmarket flat with it’s high thread count sheets and all the right TV packages is the height of luxury to her two children. They have slept in some terrible places while homeless and they don’t want to be on the run again. Lucy is scared and not just about the events in her childhood, because she’s been replicating the pattern of abuse she learned to endure at Cheyne Walk, into her adult relationships. She’s also used to running from people she owes money to. She hopes that now the house is sold, she can find a secure and happy home for her children close enough to keep in touch with her brother. She knows that Henry is more fragile than he seems, but also that there’s a darkness at his centre and she doesn’t know what might happen if he ever lets it come to the surface.
The pace of the novel is pretty fast and I almost read it in one sitting. Short chapters mean it’s very easy to get caught by that little voice that goes ‘just one more chapter won’t hurt’ when it’s gone midnight and you have to be up in the morning. The tension is builds, then decreases, then builds again by using clever tactics like finding something out at the end of a chapter, then the next chapter going back in time or dismissing what you’ve just found out. Although the storyline seems clear she throws in little curveballs like a spot of blackmail here or an unexpected murder there, to take us off the main track. I found some dark humour in two people turning up to murder the same person. I thought that the author also managed to inject some hope for the future too, in what has been a very dark and painful story. If you’ve been through childhood abuse, domestic violence and sexual violence there are some tough paragraphs here and there. I must admit I found some of the coercive control and verbal abuse difficult, and I found myself holding my breath in parts, but that’s how I knew the author had got it absolutely right. This was a fantastic sequel, that I would say needs to be read after the first novel and not as a stand-alone. It really stands up to the power of the first novel with it’s tension, darkness and psychological game playing but also offers some measure of healing too. A fantastic sequel from an author at the top of her game.
Meet The Author
Lisa Jewell has written and published another sixteen books, since her debut Ralph’s Party, from the ‘curry and flatmates’ novels of the nineties and noughties like Thirtynothing, One Hit Wonder, A Friend of the Family and Vince & Joy, to more family-themed novels like After The Party, The Making of Us and The House We Grew Up In and more recently, psychological thrillers such as I Found You, Then She Was Gone, Watching You and The Family Upstairs, which charted in the summer of 2019 at number one in the hardback charts.
Lisa lives in London with her husband, two daughters, two hairy cats, two nervous guinea pigs and a lovely auburn dog. She writes every day, a minimum of one thousand words, in a cafe, with no access to the internet, in two to three hour sessions