Book Review | The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell

Libby Jones has waited her whole life to find out who she is. Adopted as a newborn baby, she was found by police in her cot in a Chelsea mansion, while three dead bodies lay on the kitchen floor downstairs. Now 25, she receives a letter that will change everything. She finds out that she is heir to said Chelsea mansion, worth millions.

Desperate to find out more about her early life, she reaches out to the journalist who originally covered the case more than two decades ago. But in digging up the past, they begin to uncover the sinister truth about what really happened inside the house.

“God, you and me both. Two years of my life, that article took from me, two obsessed, insane, fucked-up years of my life. Destroyed my marriage and I still didn’t get the answers I was looking for. Nowhere near.”

Alongside Libby’s present-day narrative, we have the voice of Lucy, a single mother of two in the south of France, eking out a living playing the fiddle, and Henry, who lived in the house as a child in the 80s and 90s. What began as a privileged and trouble-free childhood soon turned into something a lot more sinister with the arrival of the Thomsen family and their enigmatic – soon to turn terrifying – pater familias, David.

The strongest narrative thread was Henry’s, his slow unravelling of the series of events that led to the headline-grabbing deaths in 1994. Over time, the house is slowly taken over to become a place where the inhabitants are imprisoned in deeply disturbing circumstances.

What enables Jewell to maintain the suspense is that we don’t know how these perspectives are related until the story unfolds. Libby, the baby in the cot, becomes the catalyst for the past to rear its head – and the former inhabitants of the house also come back into the picture, themselves desperate for answers.

“It was a fork in the road, literally. Looking back on it there were so many other ways to have got through the trauma of it all, but with all the people I loved most in the world facing away from me I chose the worst possible option.”

This isn’t a novel for readers expecting a multitude of twists and turns – rather, it is a slow burn of a psychological suspense that functions as a character study of dysfunctional and complex families. There were avenues that I would have liked to have seen explored in more detail; like Libby’s character fleshed out, and most of all more time spent examining the slow descent of the Chelsea mansion into the prison it became.

Overall, I enjoyed Jewell’s writing style, and the overall trajectory of the novel (including the ambiguous ending), but I felt that she could have fleshed out some of the narratives and resisted some of the tangental anecdotes, particularly with regards to Lucy’s storyline, in order to give the reader a richer understanding of the main narrative and the events that unfolded under the control of their malevolent leader.

3 thoughts on “Book Review | The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell

  1. I agree! I felt this novel was not as good as Then She Was Gone which is the only other book by Lisa Jewell that I’ve read. The sad thing about American thrillers, to me, is that most of them are either contrived/manipulated “twists” or they are exactly the same story over and over again. Which is why I love translated literature so much.
    Thanks for visiting me today.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ll have to read Then She Was Gone to see if I get on better with that one! Lisa Jewell is from the UK, but I know what you mean in that certain thriller tropes have now been done to death as everyone is hopping on the bandwagon. Would love to hear about some translated thrillers that you’ve enjoyed!

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