The Heights Louise Candlish Book Review

Book review: ‘The Heights’ by Louise Candlish, a slow-burn domestic noir about motherhood, retribution, and obsession ★★★★

How far would you go to protect your children? To what lengths would you pursue justice for anyone who did them harm? Ellen Saint is less than thrilled when her golden boy, Lucas, is matched as a ‘buddy’ at sixth form with Kieran, whose foster-home upbringing and non-standard English is worlds apart from Ellen’s carefully-cultivated suburban London home and Oxbridge aspirations for her son.

She sounds like a Karen, and yet she’s not an unsympathetic character. Kieran is rude, obnoxious, seemingly untalented in anything other than leading Lucas astray. Before Ellen knows it, they’re out most nights drinking and taking drugs, and Lucas’s university aspirations are rapidly fading. And then the unthinkable happens, and Ellen’s dislike of Kieran turns into a full-blown obsession, consuming her day and night. Unable to forgive or move on, she channels her energy into a campaign to destroy him.

‘Far from getting cold feet, I had begun to feel the fanaticism of someone whose mission is absolutely – almost divinely – right.’

In a clever structure, Ellen’s retelling of the course of events is framed as a writing project for female victims of crime, and is interspersed with extracts from a newspaper article, painting the story in another (more impartial?) light. When the perspective shifts halfway through, to that of Lucas’s father, Vic, we see things from yet another angle.

‘When you write your history, you find that you identify – and scatter – clues you couldn’t possibly have seen when you were living events in the present. Which means what’s blindingly obvious to you reading this now was unfathomable to me at the time.’

It’s funny how there are base instincts that compel even the most respectable amongst us to acts of lunacy. Ellen suffers from ‘l’appel du vide’ – the urge to jump when confronted with a steep drop, such as you might find on a bridge, the edge of a cliff, or the roof of a skyscraper.

I almost finished this in one sitting on a transatlantic flight (and it accompanied me through the jetlag of the following days). In Candlish’s fiction – as in life – there are rarely clear-cut heroes and villains, and her well-plotted domestic noirs don’t want for depth or nuance. The pace is measured rather than frantic, but gut-wrenching in its slow reveals, the truths and untruths that emerge as the story unfolds.

With thanks to Simon & Schuster for the advanced copy. The Heights will be published in March 2022.

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