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.
‘At the turn for the Northside quays, the bus missed the lights. A woman in front of Kate said to the person next to her, ‘There’s so much traffic we’re going backwards.’ The seatmate agreed and the conversation went relentlessly round, each of them talking over the other, saying the same things, until Kate felt that she might never get off the bus. The windows had fogged again and the vents at her feet piped sour heat up to her face. She popped a button on her coat, elbowing popped a button on her coat, elbowing the man beside her by mistake. ‘Sorry,’ she said. He ignored her and leaned forward for another bite of his breakfast bap. The yolk split, smearing the ketchup like pus into blood. Kate moved as far away from him as she could, which was not very far at all. Her right ear started to ring, a kind of static fuzzing inside her head. Across the aisle, a toddler screamed, his sharp little cries sucking the light right out of the sky.’
This book was one of those ‘slight’ novels but it really does pack an emotional punch. As I started to read Dinner Party, my brain meandered back to my university days and the first time I read Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, which was like nothing I’d ever read. The above quote, following Kate through the city as she shops for the dinner party she’ll be holding that evening, reminded me of the scene where Clarissa Dalloway takes the omnibus. The writing is simply beautiful, we’re on a bus ride so nothing much happens but everything happens all at once. We get such a sense of Kate from this short passage: her anxieties, her fears, the irritability with other passenger’s foibles, the disgust with food and how her senses become overloaded to the extent that a baby crying takes all the joy out of her.
Today Kate is cooking a meal for her siblings to mark the sixteenth anniversary of their sister Elaine’s death. Every year the Gleeson siblings gather, but this year is a little different. Elaine was Kate’s twin, and she still feels utterly bereft:
‘But a twin can never get over a twin. It was like someone asking you to forget yourself.’
Kate has decided to host the dinner party for her two brothers and her sister-in-law in the flat she plans to leave soon after. As the four settle round the table, to enjoy the food Kate has taken so much trouble over, they begin to talk about their mother. Peter defends her as he always does, but Ray and his wife Liz challenge his excuses for her cantankerous nature. When they leave, earlier than she expected, Kate performs the mental ritual of counting the number of bites she’s taken. Several life events seem to have plunged her into a crisis. She has just been rejected by the married man she’s been having an affair with, which somehow seems worse now she’s thirty-three. Her work holds no challenge and could be done by a junior colleague and she has fewer friends to support her. This is not her first mental crisis, they started in her third year at university when she was hospitalised for anorexia. Counting bites and controlling her food offered an escape from the pain of loss that never seems to go away, not to mention her mother’s anger and constant criticism. The author then takes us to a year later, as another dinner party marks the seventeenth anniversary of Elaine’s death but this time things are different for all three siblings.
This is a psychologically complex novel and I loved that, being a therapist. Kate is constantly over-thinking, re-evaluating and performing rituals in an exhausting monologue that seems constant for her. As the product of a critical parent, her self-talk is largely negative. She has internalised her mother’s criticism and now carries it with her wherever she goes. It stifles her ability to self-soothe, a vital skill for adult life that allows us to make ourselves feel better. Instead she needs constant input and encouragement from something outside herself, often a person who shows merely a hint of kindness or approval. However, another means of gaining approval is through achievement and Kate is definitely an over achiever, constantly setting herself standards and markers against which she can better herself and feel more valued:
‘She could never pin down the problem; it was a shifty kind of thing, something to do with routine. Shopping in the same supermarket, buying the same foods, wearing the same outfit in different colours, or even with things she enjoyed like music or exercise, running the same stretch of beach, having to reach the railing she’d reached the day before—all these arbitrary markers of success or failure that seemed to somehow captivate and imprison her. Devika said it was just the break-up blues making her feel inadequate, but the truth was, it had been going on for years, long before Liam, this impulse to do things to exhaustion. It was extreme living. Or it was living for two. Wringing the sponge, Kate felt the energy leave her body. She sat on a stool and began to count. Three. Then five—no four—it was only four. And a sprout. Less than ten bites in total, a miracle with all the food.’
The author has created incredible multi-dimensional characters here with all their flaws and imperfections on show. We spend a lot of time inside Kate’s head and it’s a very tiring place to be. Even shopping and cooking for this simple dinner becomes a marathon as she stretches her culinary abilities with a Baked Alaska for dessert that doesn’t make the table. However, don’t think this is a litany of misery. The author’s depiction of the sibling’s dreadful mother is almost comical in it’s awfulness. Yes it’s a very dark sense of humour, but I understand it. This is just one of the defensive strategies the siblings have; if they find her funny it doesn’t hurt so much. Despite Kate being our doorway into this world, it’s important to remember that Elaine’s death isn’t just Kate’s loss. This is a family tragedy and everyone grieves in their own way and at their own pace. Kate seems to know that their mother’s irascibility has been heightened by the loss of her daughter. All the remaining siblings know they can’t measure up to a ghost. The Elaine their mother misses probably isn’t a real person any more. A mother doesn’t just grieve her daughter, she grieves the life she’d imagined for that child: the achievements and milestones of life like her wedding day, or a first grandchild. Death has erased Elaine’s flaws, creating a saint-like girl that no living child could live up to. Perhaps this is why the siblings hold their anniversary dinner without their mother, or maybe because her criticism has subtly damaged each of them, just in different ways. Yet, their mother isn’t a two-dimensional monster, which she could have become in a lesser writer’s hands.
I liked the structure of bookending the story with each, very different, dinner party. I could imagine the book being turned into a play or screenplay very easily. I loved the forays back into the past, to see all the siblings but mainly how Kate and Elaine related to each other. The past sections truly do inform the present, either explaining a sibling’s present behaviour or simply showing us the depth of what this family have lost. With themes of mental ill health, anorexia and suicide this isn’t an easy read at times, but nor should it be. The author is showing us how tragedy can be a legacy, one event leading to inter generational pain and trauma. I found her depiction of this moving, but also helpful in a strange way. Some parts are painful, especially if you’ve lost someone very important to you like I have. However, it’s also enlightening and leaves you feeling that you’re not alone in the world. That there are other people who have once felt and thought like you. The trick is to stop the pain passing on to the next generation, to let the trauma end with you. This is a wise and beautifully written debut from an author I’ll be watching out for in the future.
Published by Pushkin Press, 16th Sept 2021.
Meet The Author
SARAH GILMARTIN is a critic who reviews fiction for the Irish Times. She is co-editor of the anthology Stinging Fly Stories and has an MFA from University College Dublin. She won Best Playwright at the inaugural Short+Sweet Dublin festival. Her short stories have been published in The Dublin Review, New Irish Writing and shortlisted for the RTÉ Francis MacManus Short Story Award. Her story ‘The Wife’ won the 2020 Máirtín Crawford Award at Belfast Book Festival.
With her usual focus on families and relationships, this prolific author has turned her hand to crime fiction for new novel I Have Something To Tell You and she’s created a very competent murder mystery. Jay and her husband Tom work in the law; Jay is the senior solicitor in her father’s old law firm and Tom is a barrister in chambers across town. They live in Clifton, and have two teenage children who are very excited to be taking a gap year in their education and going travelling. When a new case comes to Jay, everything in her perfect world starts to shift. Edward Blake, local architect and property developer, has been arrested for the murder of his wife Vanessa. The details are perfect tabloid fodder, young beautiful wife is found strapped to her bed with stirrup straps, naked and it looks like she’s been strangled. Jay knows this is going to be an interesting case and immediately leaves for the police station, where she meet DI Ken Bright and his right hand woman DS Hamble. He’s quite clear that it does not look good for her client. Last night he had arrived home, realised his wife was not there but didn’t find that odd. Possibly because their house splits at the top of the stairs – to the right is a master bedroom suite where Edward Blake retires and to the left the guest bedrooms. It is only the next morning when Blake starts to become concerned for his wife’s welfare and when checking the guest bedrooms, just in case she came in late and didn’t want to disturb him, he finds his wife’s body. He now finds himself the prime suspect and he’s relying on Jay to keep him out of jail. Who has killed Vanessa and can Jay succeed in helping her client?
I enjoyed the double storyline, as time was split equally between the case and Jay’s personal life which hits rock bottom as she works with her client. With their children’s imminent departure on their travels, Jay and husband Tom have been looking forward to some quality time together. Both work long hours and this is their chance to slow down, maybe take some time off here and there, and start to enjoy their time together again. Daughter Liv has been struggling in an ‘on again – off again’ relationship with the son of one of their friends and Jay is there as a listening ear. However, it’s Tom who lobs an absolute bombshell into their lives and we get to see how Jay copes under the double pressure of a tough murder case, and trouble at home. At home Jay finds it difficult to sleep and to keep her head. At least work, tough as it is, gives her some respite from troubles at home. She finds an unlikely listener in her client, no matter what state his case is in, Blake notices if Jay is off colour or has things on her mind. He enquires whether she is ok and Jay admits to feeling emotional and being concerned for her marriage. However, this is only a moment of weakness, I was fascinated by the way Jay is usually able to put her game face on and lose herself in the case, undertaking investigations with her trusty P.I. Joe, and becoming embroiled in all the twists and turns.
I thought I’d identified the murderer at the halfway point, but I got it wrong which was a great surprise. Blake and Vanessa’s lives were complicated by another death in the family, and grief had eaten away at their lives and relationship. Vanessa is very troubled and vulnerable from that point on. I found myself a little uneasy with Blake and his position as ‘victim’ in their marital problems. Motives range from sexual jealousy to wrangling over money and potential inheritance. We meet a whole host of characters during the investigation, some of them real horrors that it must have been great fun to write. Vanessa’s stepmother sticks in my mind, because she’s a manipulative and vindictive old woman. She’s sitting on a fortune thanks to the ruined, Gothic, pile she insists on living in even though she can barely afford to heat it. This should be inherited by Vanessa, but could other members of the family have resented that? Especially since Blake and Vanessa already own three incredible properties where they live.
The author pitched her characters perfectly, whether it’s the professional, middle-classes or those who’ve had their money a bit longer. These characters all have beautiful, elegant, homes that sport giant kitchens/ family rooms where they can cook, dine and watch TV together. Blake’s a property developer so his own home is spectacular and very seductive. It’s real Country Homes and Interiors perfection, with it’s well placed riding boots in the hallway and bifold doors in the rear extension with incredible views of the Cotswolds. I wanted to live there. I’d have even taken the guest bedroom where the body was found! Each character had something that made the reader suspicious of them, and I looked forward to each new revelation in the case. I liked Jay’s relationship with her investigator Joe, ex police officer and friend of her father’s, he is a solid presence in her life when everything else is shifting. The author brings in themes of empty nest syndrome, infidelity, betrayal, and the impact of trauma. I thought her portrayal of long-term relationships was probably very realistic. She showed how we change as we get older, but also how life events change people and their priorities, creating the potential to derail even the strongest of marriages. The ending was unexpected, leaving one final twist for last which is always satisfying and not tying up every loose end neatly in a bow. This was an enjoyable read and a successful foray into crime fiction and domestic noir.
This was the book that first started my love affair with Lucy Atkins’s writing. I remember when I first read this novel for my book club, I was so impatient to find out what happened back in the 1970s to Elena and Susannah. A terrifying and traumatic event has linked these two women for over 30 years and it can’t stay a secret for ever. In the present is Elena’s daughter Kali, who has just lost her mother to breast cancer, a mother she could never make sense of or bond with as she wanted. In the aftermath of Elena’s death, Kali is trying to make sense of that difficult relationship when she finds a hidden pile of postcards from a woman called Susannah in her mother’s things. Thinking she has found the clue to her mother’s past she pursues this woman to find out about events leading up to her birth and a family history that has resolutely stayed hidden.
Driven forward by grief, and the constant worry that her husband is having an affair, Kali takes her son Finn on an odyssey to unearth her mother’s secrets and to find herself. She has many theories about what she might find: maybe her father had an affair; could Susannah have been his lover or her mother’s? Yet, what she finds is something she never suspected. Set against the backdrop of wild North America and Canada we learn about a woman’s quest to understand the Orca. Distressed by witnessing the killer whales at Seaworld in California while doing her PhD, a young Elena leaves everything to record killer whale pods in the, ocean. The Seaworld orca gave birth to a calf that was so disorientated by his tiny tank he kept banging himself against the glass trying to navigate through echolocation. His desperate mother keeps pushing him away from the sides to protect him from damage, but in her efforts to protect she forgets to nurture and the calf dies because she has forgotten to feed him. Kali was similarly starved of nurturing by her mother because she was so intent instead on protecting her from this awful secret.
The novel is an incredible insight into relations between mothers and daughters. Kali’s sister Alice has a great relationship with her mother that seems easy, whereas Kali and Elena clash over everything. Kali sees that her mother finds her hard to nurture and believes it is her fault. It takes putting herself in danger to find out why and in finding out she also discovers that essential piece of the jigsaw that tells her who she is and grounds her in a history. The novel shows how when you become a mother it becomes more importantu cc than ever to know where you are from and how you belong. It also shows how the secrets of one generation have a huge impact on the next, even if the secret is kept with the best of intentions. The book cleverly shows the difference between generations since we have now moved into a world where we put our own lives on show for fun. In a world where counselling and therapy are becoming the norm it is no longer seen as acceptable to keep such huge secrets and we know as post-Freudians what effect those early years of parenting have on the adult we become.
Aside from the complex human relationships are the family ties within the Orca families. We see how there are resident pods and transient pods with different feeding habits and rules to abide by. It is also clear that parallels can be drawn between the whale relationships and the human ones. Elena is so moved by their mothering instincts and the possibilities to map their language and understand their emotions. She gives up everything to spend as much time with them as she possibly can even going to sleep on her floathouse with the sounds of whales drifting up from a microphone in the water. I learned so much about these incredible creatures without losing the majesty of them and the awe a human being feels when a huge tail rises up out of the water next to their boat.
The book reads as a dissection of family relationships, a thriller, a study of whales and a study of grief. Grief causes Elena to suffer with depression throughout her life, grief traumatises Susannah to the extent that she is unbalanced by the things she has witnessed and it is grief that compels Kali to jump on a plane to Vancouver with nothing but a few postcards and the internet to go on. I struggled to put the novel down because of the thriller element. Like a good crime novel, you desperately want to know the truth of who- dunnit. Yet it is those final chapters I like best, after everything is resolved and each character is living in the aftermath of exposed secrets and recovery from physical and mental injury. The novel could have ended there and I am glad that it went further, back into Elena’s past so that we can see her happy on her floathouse making coffee and then hearing those whales come to greet her.
She would go back to that throughout her life, right to the very end. But the last time, when the world had shrunken to the contours of her skin and she leaned over the railings, it wasn’t the whales that she saw in the water. And so she jumped.
Meet The Author
Lucy Atkins is an award-winning British author and journalist. Her most recent novel, Magpie Lane, is a literary thriller set in an Oxford college. Her other novels are The Night Visitor (which has been optioned for TV), The Missing One, and The Other Child.
Lucy is a book critic for The Sunday Times and has written features for UK newspapers including The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Times, and many magazines. She was a Costa Novel Award judge in 2017, and teaches creative writing to Masters students at Oxford University.
She is mother of three and has also written several non-fiction books including the Amazon #1 parenting guide, First Time Parent (Collins). She has lived in Philadelphia, Boston and Seattle and now lives in Oxford, UK.
This was a complicated and fascinating book about art, but also how difficult the relationship can be between mothers and daughters.. I really believed in this story and it’s portrayal of the difficulties in making art. I was not surprised to read that the author had been an art writer, because of the detail and truth in the process of creating. Set in the art world of NYC, Lisa is a painter in the Abstract Expressionist era of the 1950s. She starts to be sidelined when she becomes pregnant, but truly believes she can be a mother and still create great art. Studying in NYC is a dream and I think she really felt she’d found her people, her tribe. Fellow artist and lover Hank, goes up against her for an exhibition and is surprised when it’s Lisa’s work that really gets noticed. We then jump to 1966.
When her daughter Rouge was born, Lisa found herself butting up against the male dominated art world, surprised to find it quite conventional after all. I loved the feminist take on what we imagine to be a fairly free and bohemian world. It was an area of life that I’d imagined had less barriers. I really felt for Lisa and understood her disillusionment when her ex-lover is suddenly a new darling of the movement. Especially considering how similar their work is. The psychological effects of this realisation include resentment building between mother and daughter. The resentment is felt, even where it isn’t knowingly expressed or acknowledged. Lisa ends up teaching in college to pay the bills, she also starts to drink more heavily and take risks. Years later, when her daughter Rouge takes an interest in art she chooses photography as her medium. She looks for a mentor and finds Ben Fuller, who happens to be one of Lisa’s old lovers. This acknowledgment, and from a male member of the art world, adds another layer of resentment between mother and daughter. If Rouge’s photography is going to be noticed, how will Lisa cope and what lengths will she go to in order to deal with these negative feelings? Would she consider sabotage?
When she was pregnant Lisa could have chosen another road, she could have walked through a door of her choosing and be living a different life. She hasn’t intentionally made Rouge feel unwanted, but the choice to stop creating art held within it so much self-sacrifice, that it’s some unconscious negativity and even anger has come through to her daughter. Now her daughter is going to take the acclaim that Lisa feels is rightfully hers. However, Rouge is also angry, about the drinking and the revolving door of lovers who come in and out. She is so dismissive of her mother’s choices that she’s very surprised to find one of these lovers had anything useful to teach her. If her photography is good enough, she can imagine doors opening for her. It could be an escape from home and her mother.
I loved that all those elements and difficulties of a woman creating are expressed through Lisa’s world and it’s likely the author has felt similar constraints herself – they haven’t really gone away half a century later. I still feel guilty if I’m writing instead of doing the housework, or doing something for the family. I even find it hard to tell friends I can’t see them because I’m writing. Writing isn’t seen as real work until you’re published, but if you can’t write that never happens. Everyone thinks it can just be moved to tomorrow, and I know I’m not alone in putting it off. Some of that could be imposter syndrome, but it’s also saying it out loud. If I tell people I’m writing, then it’s real with all it’s chance of failure. However, the difference between the 1950s and the 1960s is a huge one culturally, There’s the pill for a start, leaving women in developed countries in charge of their own fertility. Between that and the more permissive attitudes in society it’s clear to see why Lisa would feel there is a huge gap between her generation and her daughter’s. Rouge is free to network and really sell herself. She can curate her own image as an artist, whereas mothers already have one. The author depicts the artistic journey so well – that imposter syndrome, the dreams, the crushing reality and self-sabotage are all seen in these two women. The author shows, quite beautifully, how mothers and daughters misunderstand each other: not knowing the cultural differences between their generations; not even understanding, never mind appreciating, the sacrifices made and the love behind them. This book is about that distance between mothers and daughters, a distance that can only be bridged through openness and honesty, as well as space and time. This was a fascinating and psychologically complex read.
Meet The Author.
Lis Bensley is a writer living in Santa Cruz, CA. She has worked as a journalist at The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, when she lived in Paris and studied cooking at the Cordon Bleu. Subsequently she wrote The Women’s Health Cookbook. To entertain her children, she wrote The Adventures of Milo & Flea about the antics of their cat and dog. She is currently hoping to publish her novel The Glimpse and is working on sequels to the Milo and Flea story.
I’m a big fan of this author’s previous novels Into The Water and TheGirl on the Train. Incidentally, I didn’t like the latter’s film relocation to upstate New York, because I didn’t feel it had the necessary grit of the book’s London location and lost something in translation. I’ve been looking forward to her new novel and I spent the weekend on my chaise longue reading it with a bar of Green and Blacks Sea Salt. Pure bliss! The novel is set in London, on a stretch of the Regent’s Canal between Bethnal Green and Islington. We open with a body being found on one of the canals, the deceased is a young man his neighbour only knows as Daniel. When she boards his boat and finds his body covered in blood she knows she must ring the police. However, in typical Hawkins fashion, the author wishes to unsettle the reader and leave them unsure of who to trust. So, although his neighbour Miriam looks like a run of the mill, middle aged and overweight woman, used to being ignored, she does something unexpected. She notices a key next to the body, and as it doesn’t belong to the boat she picks it up and pockets it.
Our other characters are members of Daniel’s family, who live within walking distance of each other in this area. Daniel’s mother Angela is an alcoholic, in a very strained relationship with her only child until his death. Then there’s his Aunty Carla and Uncle Theo who live near the boat. Daniel appears to have a closer relationship with his Aunty Carla, than he did with his mother, but is it really what it seems? Miriam has noticed some odd comings and goings from the boat next door. This is a family with secrets, both old ones and current ones. Miriam noticed that the girl who works in the local launderette, Laura, was with Daniel on the night in question and they had a row. Laura could have killed him, but Miriam doesn’t think so. Then there’s Irene, an elderly lady who lives next door to Angela and has also noticed some strange behaviour next door too. She knows the family well although Angela has often been too distracted by her own life to form a friendship. Irene does have a soft spot for Laura who helps her out from time to time, by going shopping or running errands. Like Miriam, Irene is also wondering if everything is what it seems with this murder. Lonely people observe a lot and although the family won’t realise this, she’s in possession of a lot of information. Something seismic happened to this family years before, something that changed the lives of everyone involved. Might that have a bearing on their current loss? Could that be the small flame, burning slowly for many years, before erupting into life and destroying everything?
I absolutely fell in love with Laura. She has a disability that affects her mobility and, along with many other symptoms, she has problems keeping her temper. Her hot-headed temperament has led to a list of dealings with the police. This isn’t her normal character though, this rage seems to come from the accident she had as a child. She was knocked down by a car on a country road while riding her bike and broke her legs, as well as sustaining a head injury which has affected her ability to regulate her emotions. Further psychological trauma was caused when she found out the man who hit her, was not just driving along a country round, but driving quickly away from an illicit encounter. Who told him to drive away and why? Laura feels very betrayed and now when she feels threatened, or let down, that rage bubbles to the surface. She’s her own worst enemy, unable to stop her mouth running away with her, even with the police. She has a heart of gold, but very light fingers. She’s shown deftly whipping a tote bag from the hallway of Angela’s house, but in the next moment trying to help Irene when she can’t get out. I found myself rooting for her, probably because she’s an underdog, like Miriam. Miriam feels that because of her age, looks and influence she is completely invisible. She has been passed over in life so many times, it’s become the norm. However, there is one thing she is still angry about. She wrote a memoir several years ago and showed it to a writer; she believes he stole her story for his next book and she can’t let that go.
I love how the author writes her characters and how we learn a little bit different about them, depending on who they’re interacting with. They’re all interlinked in some way, and their relationships become more complex with time. As with her huge hit The Girl on the Train, the author plays with our perceptions and biases. She doesn’t just plump for one unreliable narrator, every character is flawed in some way and every character is misunderstood. We see that Miriam is not the stereotypical middle-aged woman others might think she is, as soon as she pockets that piece of evidence at the crime scene. Others take longer to unmask themselves, but when they do there’s something strangely satisfying about it. We even slip into the past to deepen our understanding of this complicated group of people, letting us into all their dirty little secrets, even those of our victim Daniel. When I’m counselling, something I’m aware of is that I’m only hearing one person’s perspective of an event. Sometimes, that’s all it needs, some good listening skills and letting the client hear it themselves. Yet, it is only one part of a much bigger story. Occasionally, I do get an inkling of what the other person in the story might have felt and I might ask ‘do you think your wife heard it like that or like this?’ If I say ‘if my partner did or said what you did, I might feel….’ it makes the client think and asks that they communicate more in their relationship. Sometimes the intention behind what we say becomes lost in the telling. That’s how it was reading this book, because we do hear nearly every perspective on an event, but also how each event or interaction affects the others. The tension rises and it was another late night as I had to keep reading to the end. Paula Hawkins has become one of those authors whose book I would pre-order unseen, knowing I’m going to enjoy it. In my eyes this book cements her position as the Duchess of Domestic Noir.
Meet The Author.
PAULA HAWKINS worked as a journalist for fifteen years before turning her hand to fiction. Born and brought up in Zimbabwe, Paula moved to London in 1989 and has lived there ever since. Her first thriller, The Girl on the Train, has been a global phenomenon, selling 23 million copies worldwide. Published in over forty languages, it has been a No.1 bestseller around the world and was a No.1 box office hit film starring Emily Blunt.
Into the Water, her second stand-alone thriller, has also been a global No.1 bestseller, spending twenty weeks in the Sunday Times hardback fiction Top 10 bestseller list, and six weeks at No.1.
A Slow Fire Burning was published on 31st August by Doubleday.
I was so blown away by Fein’s beautiful novel People Like Us earlier this year, that I immediately jumped at the chance to read her new novel early. I was ready to be immersed in her incredible characters, historical background and unique perspective. At first glance this novel seemed different to her last novel. Set in England in the 1920s we meet a pair of sisters, Eleanor and Rose. Their parents died young, and as a result of supporting each other from then on, they have been inseparable. The book opens as Eleanor and her daughter Mabel set off on their pony and cart to meet Rose at the railway station. She is returning from a period of time in Paris, to live with Eleanor and her husband Edward. However, before Rose arrives something very strange happens to Mabel, as she sits quietly on the grass outside the station. One of the train guards notices first and alerts Eleanor, who rushes over to sit by her daughter. Mabel is making repetitive jerky movements, her eyes have rolled back and she is oblivious to Eleanor’s attempts to rouse her. Once it’s passed, Mabel seems exhausted and she travels back to the house, wrapped in a blanket and looking very sleepy. Eleanor’s concern is twofold: firstly, will Mabel be ok? Secondly, how will husband Edward respond if it happens again, considering he’s one of the leading lights of the eugenicist movement?
Eugenics was a movement that emerged in the aftermath of Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species. The idea was to improve the human species by actively encouraging breeding between people with certain desirable traits. Of course that also meant actively ‘breeding out’ invisible disabilities like epilepsy, as well as people thought to be the wrong colour, of low intelligence or mentally unwell. Even criminal tendencies and poverty were thought to be undesirable traits that could be ‘bred out’ of society. In the early 20th Century, eugenics was a legitimate area of scientific enquiry here in the U.K. but it was even more popular in the USA where it made its way into marriage legislation in Connecticut as early as 1896. It became illegal for those who were ‘feeble-minded’ or epileptic to marry. The Eugenics Record Office was then set up to track families and their genetic traits, concluding that those deemed unfit were a victim of negative genes not racism, economics or other social issues. This is the type of study that Eleanor’s husband Edward is undertaking. As a psychology professor he’s using eugenics to shape education policy. He’s studying children from poorer families to test their intelligence against those from middle-class families. He’s expecting the theory to hold and the poorer children to be genetically predisposed to be less intelligent. This will be the basis for streaming children into different educational programs and is the basis for our real life grammar school system; the top 25% of children are determined by the 11 plus exam and streamed into grammar school education, something that still happens in my home county of Lincolnshire. Yet eugenics took a very dark turn in America where there were thousands of forced sterilisations in mental institutions and for the Native American population right up till the 1970’s. So contrary to most people’s understanding, Germany were not the only proponents of eugenics theory, but their use of the theory to murder six million Jewish people, as well as members of the Roma community and disabled people, is the most horrific act of genocide the world has ever seen.
Edward isn’t just dabbling with eugenics. He’s a true believer. Eleanor changes considerably throughout the novel. At first she sees Edward as a saviour, looking after her and her sister Rose. We first see tension in the novel when Rose returns from Paris and announces she is in love with an artist. It feels as if Edward takes a more fatherly role, or saw his role as a old-fashioned protector of the sisters, especially since they have no parents. Eleanor agrees with her husband that Rose could make a far better match, someone with more money and prospects would be the ideal. As Edward denies Rose’s request to see Max or perhaps bring him to dinner, Eleanor is torn between them but trusts her husband’s judgement for now. She even allows him the final decision over Mabel’s care. These were the most difficult sections of the novel for me. They have to be there so that we understand the reality of epilepsy in the early 20th Century, but the treatments feel brutal and my heart broke for this little girl who is having all the spirit drained out of her. There’s some very impressive research behind this part of the story, not just into treatments, but into the theories and the superstition surrounding the illness. In my head I was screaming at Eleanor to follow her instincts and intervene, although even if she had, would she be listened to? I found the pompous and arrogant attitude of the doctors in the novel, sadly true to life. Neurology is a discipline I’m very used to and to some extent there is still a difference in the way some neurologists treat men and women. In fact, apart from Max, all the men in the novel are caught up in their own ego, and seem to want public credit for everything they’ve done, along with deference and respect from women and those lower than them on the social scale. They have full belief in their skills and methods, and will not be questioned on their decisions.
I wanted Eleanor to stand up and fight for her daughter, with both the institution and Edward. I was shocked at the lengths he was willing to go to, in order to prove his theories right. There needed to be a shift in his relationship with Eleanor where she starts to see him more as an equal, a fallible human being rather than a saviour. Only then could she decide whether she was willing to work on their relationship, where it felt to me he needed to be a husband rather than a father-figure. I felt so tense as we moved towards the ending, and I found it satisfying for these characters, but there was still that concern inside me, about how eugenics developed in horrifying ways. I knew I would be thinking about the novel for some time afterwards. I wondered what would Edward feel about eugenics a few years later with Nazism on the rise and Hitler’s dream of creating a master race in its first stages. I’d also thought of Max, Rose’s artist, and whether he stayed in England to be with Rose and missed out on the fate of many other Parisian Jews, who wrongly expected to be safe in France. As a person with a disability, the eugenics movement both terrifies and angers me. The thought of the suffering endured by people with disabilities, at the hands of scientists, fills me with rage. Even before WW2 the Nazi Party we’re starting their crusade for a master race. On July 14, 1933, the Germany passed the “Law for the Prevention of Progeny with Hereditary Diseases.” The law called for the sterilisation of all people with diseases considered hereditary, including mental illness, learning disabilities, physical deformity, epilepsy, blindness, deafness, and severe alcoholism.
When the law passed the Third Reich also stepped up its propaganda against the disabled, regularly labeling them “life unworthy of life” or “useless eaters” and highlighting their burden upon society. Many people in the disabled community feel there is a similarity to 21st Century rhetoric around benefit claimants and fraud, framing disabled people as dependent on the state and drains on resources. I must admit that it drifted into my mind as I was reading. There is a claim that the withdrawal of benefits and support from the disabled community since 2006, has led to a genocide of disabled people. The figure often quoted is 120,000 additional deaths caused by austerity. Even before the the Final Solution, the Nazis were using the term ‘’euthanasia” for the systematic killing of the institutionalized mentally and physically disabled, even children. Using the term euthanasia made it sound as if death was a kindness for those who were really suffering or terminally ill, but this was not the case. The secret operation, code-named T4, in reference to the street address (Tiergartenstrasse 4) of the program’s coordinating office in Berlin, followed systematic sterilisation of groups in society they wanted to reduce or eradicate. I studied eugenics as part of my dissertation on disability in fiction in 2004 and it is an insidious theory that still hasn’t fully lost it’s influence on the world.
This book stirred up so many thoughts and feelings for me as a disabled reader. Knowing you are one of those people who would have been eradicated is unsettling and leaves me feeling very sensitive to the language used by governments and their attitude towards the disabled community. If people with disabilities are veterans or Paralympians they are acceptable, but otherwise their existence is problematic and I often wonder what it would take for the tide to turn and history to repeat itself. So, I appreciated the depth of the author’s research and the care she took in telling Mabel’s story. The First World War veterans struggling to adjust and live back in society, were a really interesting thread too. Edward is supporting one of his men financially, for reasons that extend all the way back to the battlefield. I enjoyed the adjustment that has to take place in Eleanor and Edward’s marriage once all the secrets he’s been keeping are out in the open. If they stay together they will have to start from a basis of honesty with each other. If Edward is not a war hero or an academic with integrity, who is he? Can Eleanor love the real Edward, especially now that she’s grown up and become a stronger, more independent woman? I loved the way Louise Fein takes this volatile part of history and creates a story that is both personal to these characters, but global in it’s reach and influence. It affected me profoundly, not just because of the disability issues, but because of Mabel who I fell completely in love with. I kept reading because I wanted the best resolution for her, safe and looked after with her family around her.
Meet The Author.
Louise Fein was born and brought up in London. She harboured a secret love of writing from a young age, preferring to live in her imagination than the real world. After a law degree, Louise worked in Hong Kong and Australia, travelling for a while through Asia and North America before settling back to a working life in London. She finally gave in to the urge to write, taking an MA in creative writing, and embarking on her first novel, Daughter of the Reich (named People Like Us in the UK and Commonwealth edition). The novel was inspired by the experience of her father’s family, who escaped from the Nazis and arrived in England as refugees in the 1930’s. Daughter of the Reich/People Like Us is being translated into 11 foreign languages, has been shortlisted for the 2021 RNA Historical Novel of the year Award, and has been long listed for the Not The Booker Prize.
Louise’s second novel, The Hidden Child, will be published in the Autumn of 2021. Louise lives in the beautiful English countryside with her husband, three children, two cats, small dog and the local wildlife who like to make an occasional appearance in the house. Louise is currently working on her third novel.
I’ve been reading Hill’s Simon Serrailler novels for many years now. I read the very first one, The Various Haunts of Men, when it first came out and every one since. In this 11th outing for the detective he’s investigating a death above a Chinese Medicine shop in the distinctly hippy village of Starly. A strange anomaly in the area, Starly seems to attract shop owners selling incense, tarot cards, and new age paraphernalia. The young man in front of Simon has been dead a few hours and has a needle in the vein of his arm. It seems to be a run of the mill overdose – sadly all too common now that county lines operators had been plying their trade locally for a while. County lines drug dealing bothers Simon and he wants to eradicate it, but catching the person distributing in the village won’t yield any further results. The local man rarely knows the men above him, he just picks up a packet from a given location and gets his on foot distributors to do the next stage. Sadly, those at the bottom of the ladder are often children coerced or groomed into helping out, whether or not they even know what’s in the package they’re carrying. However there’s something about this overdose that doesn’t add up and it is going eat away at Simon until he solves the puzzle.
There are always family issues in Hill’s novels because they are as much about the family as they are the case. I’ve still after all these years, not got to grips with Simon as a character. I know him, but don’t necessarily understand him. I find it easier to understand his sister Cat, and bonded with the character when she lost her husband at a similar time to me. Here Hill concentrates on Cat’s youngest son Sam, who has unexpectedly turned up at home from university. Cat has suspected there have been some issues in his long relationship with girlfriend Rosie, but hasn’t wanted to interfere. Sam was fairly ambivalent about university anyway, so Cat isn’t too surprised when he says he doesn’t want to carry on. He quickly gets his old job back, portering at the hospital, until he decides on something more permanent. Rosie is training to be a doctor and they’re now likely to pass each other every day, but when he first sees her outside the hospital she’s with another man – was this just a hug after a long shift or was there more to it? Other family threads felt a little odd. Kieron is both Cat’s second husband and Simon’s boss, but there’s a strangely detached feeling to his presence. At the farmhouse he disappears into his study to watch TV without interruption, while Simon and Cat share a drink and talk. He doesn’t interact much with the children, particularly Sam. Any interactions he and Simon have at work, are left at work so they don’t chat over old cases or just the difficulties of policing the area. It’s as if he’s absent in his own life and if he walked away he would leave no impression behind.
The chapters that focus on the family or the police station seem to recede into the background, while the intervening chapters are full of life. A young lad called Brookie is the subject of one thread. One of four boys, brought up by Dad, their house is depicted as chaotic and noisy, but seems to be more demonstrative and affectionate than the Serrailler family. Brookie only has a plastic bag for his school books and is the subject of bullying by other kids. One day, as he’s gathering his stuff after it being emptied into a puddle, a stranger appears and starts to help him. They chat and Brookie never expects to see him again, but he drops by the following week with a new rucksack for him. Is this just a Good Samaritan or is something more sinister going on? With Dad working nights as door security on a nightclub the boys have plenty of time on their own and could be easy prey. We also meet a young girl called Olivia, from a more affluent background but her parents have recently divorced. Her father had an affair with a much younger woman and while Olivia’s mum knows that he’s become a dad again in his fifties, she hasn’t told her daughter. So, when Olivia rings her dad for some help, it is a huge shock to be told she has twin half-brothers screaming in the background. Now is not a good time to ask for help. Once a month, a man called Fats gets her to deposit an envelope to a derelict farm while pretending to be out for a run. She hates what she’s doing and it’s only shame and fear of her family finding out that keeps her going. Scared and emotionally manipulated, Olivia is looking for a way out. If her Dad won’t help she’s running out of options.
You always know you are in the hands of a great storyteller here, as it always feels as if the threads come together effortlessly. Of course that takes skill and hard work, but Hill makes it look easy. This is the first time in a while that I’ve felt a restlessness in Serrailler. Usually his large modern flat soothes him, it has the proximity to the cathedral so he also has the incredible views of its architecture. His job can be all encompassing, barely leaving room for other thoughts, never mind people. For some reason he finds himself viewing a large cottage in need of renovating, deep in the countryside. With this case he can feel his patch changing, the tendrils of drugs creeping into smaller towns with criminals who are willing to kill to keep their line of supply running. His behaviour with women has always kept me from truly liking him; he’s a ‘commitmentphobe’ who either never tells the object of his affections what he feels, or who carries on dating someone he has no future with for far too long. It may be something to do with his father’s lack of emotion or the way he has treated women in the past; his second wife had to ask Cat for help when Richard had physically attacked her. However, as a face from the past crosses his path, I did wonder whether this restlessness might mean he’s ready for change? This had that strangely comforting feeling that comes when you know your characters well and can settle into the story. It’s often the same with crime series, that even if your characters are in the midst of a bloody murder investigation, you feel happy to be amongst friends again.
Susan Hill‘s novels and short stories have won the Whitbread Book, Somerset Maugham, and John Llewellyn Rhys awards, received the Yorkshire Post Book of the Year, and have been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. The play adapted from her famous ghost novel, The Woman in Black, has been running in the West End since 1989. The eleven books in her Simon Serrailer series are all available from Overlook.
Last year I was profoundly affected by the ITV series Honour. It was a dramatisation of the murder of a young Kurdish woman, carried out by the male members of her family and ordered by her father. Bahnaz Mahmod reported her fears to the police on five separate occasions, pleading with them to help her as she believed her family would kill her. Instead of fully investigating, she was dismissed as hysterical and over over-reacting. So instead of having their protection, she was raped and murdered by distant cousins who fled back to Iraq straight afterwards. Their reasoning was that she had besmirched the honour of her family, after divorcing her arranged husband and falling in love with another man. Real life police officer DI Caroline Goode was assigned the case and this was the story of her dogged determination to hunt down those responsible. I found myself moved, but also disturbed by the case. Days later I was still thinking about it, desperately trying to understand why her actions were so offensive to her family, but the men’s actions of raping and killing their own family member were not. I simply couldn’t get into the mindset of these men, and while on one hand I could see the point of view that it is simply murder, I wanted to understand more about what made Bahnaz Mahmod’s actions condemn her to death, and how such a dishonourable act on the men’s part could be seen to restore the family honour.
So, when I had the chance to read Khan’s book I started to read more about honour killing and it’s place in the culture of Pakistan. Pakistan is a collective, patriarchal society and family groups are policed by the male members of a family, a village or area. A woman’s honour is dependent on their modesty and a man’s honour is dependent on his masculinity. So, if a young woman refuses an arranged marriage or commits adultery she has behaved immodestly and has lost her honour. Her male family members are responsible for her and if they do nothing, their masculinity is in question and their honour is lost. So, by killing the immodest woman in their midst, they are seen to assert their masculinity and regain their honour. I was very shocked to read that at least a fifth of the world’s honour killings are carried out in Pakistan, bringing their figure to just over 1000 per year. However, this is often a rural practice and has widespread support in Pakistan, so killings are not always reported and the figures may well underrepresent the problem. Awais Khan takes these figures and ideas, and weaves the tale of a bright and ambitious sixteen year old village girl, with incredible insight and compassion.
The opening scene is a brutal look at the reality of rural village ‘justice’. A young woman is dragged to the river after giving birth to an illegitimate child. The pir, who is a village elder, lists the girl’s crimes against her family and demands that the villagers carry out her punishment. I was shocked at the punishment, especially that it extends to her baby who is drowned in a bucket of milk. Make no mistake, this is hard hitting and it needs to be, for readers to understand the reality of what is still happening in Pakistan and around the world. In the wake of this horror, is a feisty young woman called Abida and despite the horrific example in front of her, she’s headstrong and believes it would never happen to her. She can already see the unfairness of the society she’s been born into – a patriarchal system where her entire life is mapped out before her and she doesn’t have any agency. She will have a husband chosen for her, he will then decide where they live, how they live and the children they’ll have. The problem is Abida has already fallen in love. Her father Jamil has already worked this out and is desperately worried for his daughter. He’s noticed she sneaks out after everyone has retired for the night, he hasn’t followed her, but does listen for her return. He knows it’s likely she’s meeting a boy and he hopes that he’s wrong, but he has a terrible feeling the worst has already happened. What will he do if the pir comes for his daughter?
I don’t want to ruin the plot, so will keep details to a minimum, but although Abida escapes her home village she doesn’t have the happy ending she expects. In an interview with Eastern Eye, Khan explains that he chose fiction to shed light on the subject of honour killing, because it ‘allows for more creative freedom, and for more heightened emotions.’ This was true for me as I fell in love with Abida’s spirit and the hope she has for her life. Amazingly, that hope follows her to Lahore and through her whole experience. She keeps thinking that beyond the situation she’s in, she will survive. The relationship between Abida and her father was so familiar to me from my own Dad. Whatever I’ve gone through in life he’s been there and I have no doubt that he’d search for me in the way Jamil does. It’s the only pure love in the whole novel, unchanged by circumstance and completely unconditional. I found it very moving and for me he’s the most honourable man in the story. He’s decided that his own moral code is dependent on how he treats his children, rather than being dependent on the opinion of the men in his village. Although this doesn’t mean Abida will be safe. In his publicity for the book, Khan has mentioned the social media celebrity Qandeel Baloch. After appearing on Pakistan Idol, she created many video clips addressing controversial topics and women’s rights. In 2016, she was drugged and strangled by her brother Wazeem Aseem who felt she was disrespecting her family. If someone as high profile as Qandeel could be killed this way, what chance does a girl have if she’s from a conservative village, mired in poverty with income and status dependent on maintaining the honour system?
I found the book shocking and I think it will probably stay with me for a while. I’m considering looking for charities to support that help women in these dreadful situations. Khan’s writing pulls no punches, but it’s also incredibly compassionate. I loved some of the more complex female characters such as the servant Salma who has kept Abida locked up, but then helps Jamil. Rana Hameed’s first wife Nigaar is fascinating, she’s broken down physically and mentally, but desperate for a new wife with the will to destroy him, even if she has to die in the process. The complicity of women is needed to keep the status quo, whether they turn a blind eye through fear or because they’ve been beaten into thinking this is the norm and it won’t ever change. I’m glad I read this, to raise my awareness and help me grasp the cultural and historical background in Pakistan. It might also inspire people to be aware of this crime globally, because it isn’t restricted to Pakistan. I hope many more people read Abida’s story and that Khan achieves his aim of showing people ‘love is never a crime’. If he achieves that the whole world will be a better place.
You can read Awais Khan’s interview with Eastern Eye at:
Awais Khan was born in Lahore, Pakistan. ‘In the Company of Strangers’ is his first novel published by Simon & Schuster and Isis Audio. His second novel ‘No Honour’ is published by Orenda Books and Isis Audio. He is a graduate of The University of Western Ontario and Durham University. He studied Creative Writing at Faber Academy. His work has appeared in The Aleph Review, The Missing Slate, MODE, Daily Times and The News International. He has appeared for Interviews on BBC World Service, Dubai Eye, Voice of America, Cambridge Radio, Samaa TV, City42, Maverix Media and PTV Home. He is represented by Annette Crossland (A for Authors Agency Ltd, London).
In his free time, he likes to read all types of fiction, especially historical fiction and psychological thrillers. He is hard at work on his forthcoming novels.
This was a real turn up for the books as they say. I’ve been ill for a few days with a virus – not that one – so I’ve been bundled up in bed, not really able to bear much noise or fuss. Yesterday morning I picked up this book, I’ve never read the author but had decided to give her a try for this tour. I’m so glad I did because once I’d started, that was me engrossed for the whole day. I read it in four hours straight and enjoyed it immensely. The action all takes place at a wedding venue hotel on the island of Kefalonia. Lucy has been planning her wedding to Jase for a very long time and she’ll be okay as long as everything she’s planned is perfect, down to the last napkin. However, she’s about to find out that once you bring other people into the equation, plans can veer off course. There’s her alternative sister Jess who has promised to behave but turns up with a stranger in tow and a psychedelic dress instead of the tasteful dusky pink they’d agreed on — not to mention her dyed pink hair will turn a straggly peach colour once she hits the sea. There’s a strange old lady who they met washing her breasts in the airport toilets, but who now seems to be everywhere. Best man Gil, who used to be Jess’s boyfriend, is here with his wife Zoe, with all the tension that could cause. Surely Lucy can rely on the older generation to behave? Her mum Hazel and Dad Dom are solid, and although they’re irritatingly close, Jase’s mum Cora is lovely. Thank God though for her best friend Shelley, who is an absolute rock and would have been a better maid of honour than her sister. There’s also wedding planner Nina, who has everything in hand, except perhaps the small matter of money. What could go wrong?
The setting was wonderful, with beautiful descriptions of stunning sunsets over the beach – Lucy has chosen this hotel specifically because although it might be a bit shabbier than some of its counterparts on the other side of the island, they can’t create a wedding at sunset. A perfect photograph for Instagram of course (I loved how even on her wedding day Lucy is itching to update her status). The author’s descriptions of olive trees, swaying grasses full of poppies, the scent of honeysuckle on the breeze, all made me want to fly out there tomorrow. I was fascinated with the idea of illusion, what’s real and what isn’t and which we present to the world. This applied to the people present as well as the online content Lucy keeps imagining in her head. When Jase said he would have married her in a registry office with none of the fuss, it really makes her think. Who was all this expense and stress for? Even wedding planner Nina has been seduced by an illusion, that of the island as an idyllic place to set down roots, but also in destination weddings themselves. She’s placed her entire financial future into a house she doesn’t fully own (thanks to local land laws) and the certainty that people will always want to buy into the dream of a destination wedding. It seems like she must have a wonderful lifestyle, but actually the island is deserted and bleak out of season and she’s literally one pay cheque from going bust. Especially when the people who buy into this illusion can’t always afford it. Almost everyone in the wedding party is hiding something. Jess, although irritating to her sister, is actually the most open and authentic person there. She just needs some self-awareness and discretion. Gil is possibly the only other member of the group with no secrets and is seemingly devoted to wife Zoé and seems to understand her, despite her brittle exterior. I enjoyed some of the evening dinner, when a lot of the smaller secrets are out in the open and people can really get to know each other, on a deeper level.
If you simply want a good thriller read, this book really delivers. We know something goes drastically wrong because in-between the story are transcripts of police interviews with members of the wedding party. The author is very skilled in giving away snippets of information, enough to get your brain whirring, but not enough to work it out. This keeps you reading just one more chapter. There are also therapy journal entries – which I loved because it’s something I ask my clients to do – but we don’t know which member of the wedding party they belong too. Every so often there’s a delicious red herring thrown in, like the groom disappearing during a dare on the fishing trip. There’s also the rising tension and suspicions of each other, even the married couple are keeping some secrets close to their chests. Watching them try to avoid being exposed, made me cringe. There are also some comedic moments, in the descriptions and behaviour of old lady Vivienne particularly, but also I the eccentricities and foibles of those in the wedding party. The author is adept at showing us aspects of human behaviour that feel totally authentic – such as the shopping day the women have, where almost everyone rejects their purchases as something they’ll never wear as soon as they return to the hotel. She also nails that feeling of loneliness, and how having no family leaves you rootless and free-floating. There’s nothing to ground you. It’s this understanding of human behaviour that made me feel there’s something subtly different going on. Underneath the thriller there’s an underlying message that I felt really elevated this above the ordinary and said something about the times we’re currently living in. It’s the old cliché of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, because some suspicions that arise in the novel, say more about that character’s prejudices than the person under suspicion. Once the secrets are in the open and disagreements are resolved, there are a lot of deep conversations and apologies to be made. We can never know what another person has gone through and while our brain may well go into overdrive when we’re unsure about someone, I felt the author was telling us to hang back a bit, find out more and be kind.
Published by Black Swan, 19th August 2021.
Meet The Author
Tammy Cohen is the author of six psychological thrillers, the latest of which is Stop At Nothing. She is fascinated by the darker side of human psychology. Her books explore how ‘ordinary’ people react when pushed into a corner, the parts of ourselves we hide from the world – and from ourselves. Previously she also wrote three commercial women’s fiction novels as Tamar Cohen debuting with The Mistress’s Revenge which was translated all round the world. In addition, she has written three historical novels under the pseudonym of Rachel Rhys. The first, Dangerous Crossing, was a Richard & Judy book club pick in Autumn 2017. She is a member of the Killer Women crime writing collective and lives in North London with her partner and three (allegedly) grown up children and her highly neurotic rescue dog.
Visit http://www.tammycohen.co.uk to find out more, or find her on facebook or twitter as @MsTamarCohen or on Instagram as @tammycohenwriter