Lisa Jewell’s author note reads that she has always been adverse to writing sequels. I am also adverse to reading sequels – especially when I’m not sure I can remember what happened in part one (thank goodness for reviews for jogging my memory!) It turns out I needn’t have worried. While it helps to have read The Family Upstairs, her first psychological thriller/family drama about the Lamb and Thomsen families in the ‘house of horrors’, all salient plot points are summarized in this sequel – so you can just dive on in.
In case you haven’t read part one, here’s a quick précis: as children, Lucy and her brother Henry were subject to unspeakable horrors after a conman called David Thomsen moved into their London home and manipulated and abused their family. They escaped as teens in the early nineties, and as the novel begins, have been recently reunited in the present day. David’s son, Phineas, has also been living under the radar for the past thirty years after making a break from the home – but he hasn’t been seen or heard of since.
One more thing – Lucy and Phin had a child when they were teenagers, a baby that is now a 26-year-old woman, Libby, who has reconnected with her birth mother but wants to know more about Phin. And Henry, who has been in love with Phin since they were boys, also wants to track him down. The problem is, Phin doesn’t really want to be found.
‘Their shared history is so big that it’s sometimes as if mere words cannot contain it and that it exists only in the pauses and the silences and the unfinished sentences. Twenty-six years is long enough for memories to grow cobwebby, abstract. Twenty-six years is long enough to doubt your recollection of things, to wonder if things really did happen the way you think they happened.’
Alongside this narrative are two additional story lines: a bag of bones is discovered in the Thames and leading the investigation is DCI Samuel Owusu, and a young woman, Rachel, finds herself in a whirlwind romance with a shady businessman, Michael. Rest assured everything comes together as the plot progresses. Although Rachel is more of a secondary character, I was gripped by her story line and desperate for her to get justice.
Henry is a beguiling character, and I remember his first-person narrative being the POV I enjoyed the most in The Family Upstairs. He is similarly fascinating and multifaceted here: you never know quite how he’s going to behave. But there’s an underlying sadness, too – a delicate exploration of the idea that these are adults still grappling with the childhood trauma that will never truly leave them, a trauma that leaves Henry with ‘a churning in my soul of loss and emptiness and lack and incompleteness…’ and Lucy with ‘the dull dread that blunts everything…’
‘Lucy lies and listens to the sounds of London traffic outside the bedroom window and she feels it again, this awful feeling that has followed her for over a year, the tightness around her skull, the dull dread that blunts everything with its incessant chipping away at her sense of security.’
There are many a preposterous coincidence in this novel, I won’t disagree (and is the reason I’m knocking off half a star). But they serve to push the narrative along at a pacy speed, whereas The Family Upstairs is more of a slow burn. It grapples with tough topics with finesse, and is a worthy sequel.
TW: rape, emotional abuse