Oh my goodness this book packs a punch! The author has created an incredibly complex character and took me from slight unease to wide-eyed horror at what was happening. Robin is trying to live a quiet life these days. She wishes she could live where there’s nobody else, just miles of wilderness, a rugged coastline and hundreds of sea birds. Yet she’s grateful for the roof over her head and the benefits she has to start her new life with. She’s grateful to be able to eat what she wants, when she wants and to have a hot shower without a queue and no fighting for the shampoo and conditioner. She doesn’t feel like ‘Robin’ though, such an insignificant and ordinary bird. In prison she was called ‘Butcher Bird’ and the public hate her, so even now twenty-five years later she can’t be Ava any more. As Robin settles into her new home and new identity, she becomes aware that someone knows who she is. Can she stay under the radar and stick to all the conditions of her release? Or will she be flushed out and shown to be the monster people think she is?
I loved the way Banks writes Ava, we see everything from her perspective and her mind is such a complicated place to be. I found myself in the strange position of being in her head, but feeling strangely detached and unsure of her. It becomes clear early on that Ava was convicted of murder and has served her full twenty-five year tariff, so there are things about the modern world she doesn’t fully understand. Social media seems ridiculous (in fact, when I try to explain Facebook it sounds ridiculous) and she’s baffled by the little rectangular boxes people carry everywhere, even paying attention to that more than the people they’re with. It’s unusual to see our society this way, with the things we take for granted shown as alien. She’s trying to fit in with her parole conditions, but they break into her peaceful world when she doesn’t want it. There are weekly appointments with the psychiatrist and home visits from Margot her probation officer. Everyone is telling her how lucky she is to be looked after by the state like this, but given the choice Ava would prefer to fend for herself. She goes to pointless interviews, where her crime means she will never be hired, but they fulfil a condition of receiving benefits. There are obligations and places to be at certain times, something she has never been used to.
I had the impression that Ava has always lived inside her own head, rather than being present in the world. We learn that her childhood was spent on a remote Scottish island where there was a huge seabird colony. With no mother, Ava is kept out of school and taken to work with the birds, helping her father, identify, check and ring them for identification. He removed any meaningless junk from the house, including Ava’s toys and her late mother’s armchair, assuring her she wouldn’t need them because she’d be outside. There are other figures that loom in Ava’s past too; Henry who she’s had a relationship of sorts with; Ditz, a fragile young woman from prison who hanged herself; then someone she addresses as ‘you’. The importance of these people and their place in Ava’s life is slowly unveiled as Ava either reminisces or becomes paranoid about them. Another catalyst is Bill next door, or more importantly, his daughter Amber. Bill has been friendly and welcoming, chatting over the fence and eventually asking whether she’d like to go for a walk. However, his daughter is more suspicious, or is it just Ava’s paranoia? Their relationship is very uneasy and Ava is sure that Amber wants to expose her, she’s just waiting for an opportunity. A poison pen letter and a brick through the window add even more pressure to the mix.
Ava strikes this reader as someone with a personality disorder. The isolated childhood and lack of schooling have left her lonely, naive and unable to form boundaries with others, as she’s never had anyone to form a relationship with. She’s grown up as easy prey for those who seem able to sense someone vulnerable and manipulate or use them. Unable to deal with rejection in the usual way someone her age might by reflecting on the experience, feeling sad and angry, maybe seeing a counsellor. She doesn’t even go get drunk, eat ice cream, and malign him to her friends, because she doesn’t have any. Her response is immature, because she is immature emotionally, but perhaps no one could have predicted the events that followed. Lucy Banks brings the past into the narrative as Ava ruminates on what happened. She’s triggered by what she sees as another rejection, so her rage and anger are disproportionate to the situation. She becomes that young girl again. At this point I started to be scared for anyone who came into her orbit. I think the way the writer slowly allows this unease to develop between reader and narrator is brilliant. I noticed that her sleep pattern changed, her paranoia starts to build, she starts to link past and present events in a way that isn’t logical, and acting on emotions rather than fact. Another clue is her inability to take responsibility for anything that has happened, she veers around it or presents it as something that just happened. I wasn’t sure whether I was in the mind of a murderer or the mind of someone who is simply struggling with their mental health, distorting the facts and hallucinating the more violent aspects of her story. I won’t tell you which it is, because slowly finding out is so satisfying and such an enjoyable read. The writer has created a highly original narrative voice and a reveal that I hadn’t worked out. I veered between being scared for Ava and scared of her. This really stands out as one of the best books I’ve read this year and I recommend you read it too.
Published by Sandstone Press 15th September 2022
Meet The Author
Lucy Banks is the author of The Case of the Green-Dressed Ghost, described by Publisher’s Weekly as ‘Ghostbusters with a British accent’. It’s the first in the series, exploring the strange, sinister (and often slightly silly) world of Dr Ribero’s Agency of the Supernatural.
In 2016, Lucy also won Amazon’s A New Night Before Christmas writing competition with her entry about a slug living under a family’s floorboards, who assumes Christmas is not for him, until he comes face to face with Father Christmas.
As you might guess (being all too familiar with slugs and ghosts), Lucy hails from South-West England – an area rife with spectral tales and plenty of bugs. She lives in Devon with her husband and two children, and in addition to writing, is an avid reader – less of a bookworm, and more of a book-python!