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.

Read if you enjoyed…

Book Review - Magpie by Elizabeth Day

Book Review | Magpie by Elizabeth Day

28-year-old Marisa may not yet have reached thirty, but she’s keen to settle down and start a family. When Jake, a decade her senior, walks into her life, she feels that everything is falling into place as it should. They’ve only known each other a few months before they’ve moved in together, and she quickly falls pregnant. They’re both delighted.

We don’t learn much about Jake – or Marisa, for that matter. Of course, our suspicions (this is a domestic noir, after all) immediately fall on Jake, a man who ‘belongs to that cadre of Englishmen who have never had to worry about learning the rules because they are the ones who make them.’ He’s cagey about his family, his corporate job seems to be going south, and he doesn’t go in for PDA. But Marisa puts this to one side – she loves him, after all, and she’s having his baby.

‘Marisa felt, with unexpected acuteness, the fragility of everything, the ease with which it could all be taken away from her.’

So when Jake suggests that they get a lodger to help pay the rent, Marisa agrees. Kate is a lithe, attractive and friendly 30-something who works in the film industry. But her behaviour starts to concern Marisa – it feels like she’s making herself a little too comfortable; cooking Jake his favourite mac ‘n cheese, using the master bathroom, leaving her belongings in their communal spaces.

And then – at a perfectly timed half-way through mark –  we start to realise that things are not, of course, as they seem. Not at all. And in fact, we might have fallen prey to a rather unreliable narrator.

This was a slightly uneven reading experience for me; it began a little flat, as I struggled to connect to Marisa and Jake and felt frustrated at the direction I felt the narrative was heading in – an unwitting young woman falling victim. But once the perspective shifts in the second half – that’s when things changed; the story becoming richer, the character insights stronger and the overall narrative energy really picking up.

Part of the plot centres around infertility, and Elizabeth Day (who has been very open about her own fertility journey) addresses this in a candid, empathetic way that shines a light on an experience that is a lot more common than most people realise. The novel does important work with telling this story in the context of a domestic noir, and it helps to flesh out the characters into three-dimensional humans.

‘She had always thought that if did the right thing, worked hard, got good results and a stable job, and tried generally to be a decent person, that life would progress in the way she anticipated.’

The ending, though… I don’t know. Perhaps a little too pat. I won’t say more than that; it’s nevertheless an absorbing read – I devoured it in two sittings – and having been a fan of Elizabeth Day’s How To Fail podcast for a while now, I’m glad to have read some of her fiction.

CW: psychosis, miscarriage, sexual assault

Magpie will be published in September 2021. Thanks to the publisher via Netgalley for the advanced copy. All quoted material subject to change.

Read if you enjoyed: The Push by Ashley Audrain, The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The Dinner Guest B P Walter

Book Review | The Dinner Guest by B. P. Walter

Rachel, working a dead-end job at a garden centre, is mindlessly scrolling Instagram. And then she sees something which makes her sit up. She quits her job, ends her lease, and moves to London – intent on finding the family she saw in the photo.

And as luck would have it, she does. The Allerton-Joneses are browsing a bookshop in their native Kensington, and Rachel engineers the perfect accidental meeting. From then on, she steadily ingratiates herself into their inner circle. But such a manoeuvre is not without its challenges. Whilst Matthew and Charlie Allerton-Jones are from the upper-echelons of British society, the very definition of being born with a silver spoon, Rachel’s meagre savings stretch to renting on a scary housing estate in Pimlico. Their fine dining and housekeeper-cooked meals contrast sharply with her discount Sainsbury’s pizzas. But Rachel knows she has to persevere with her plan, whatever the cost.

‘It’s a mirage. A charade. Stacks of money in concrete form, that’s all. Rows of houses filled with people who haven’t a clue about the horrors of this world.’

This domestic noir opens with a brutal murder, I should mention. When we first meet our protagonists, one of them is dead – and another holding a knife. But it will take the unspooling over the course of the novel to find out the how, and the why, behind this attack.

The pacing is steady, and I was engrossed in the plot and the cast of complex characters. The way that B P Walter deftly managed the twists and turns in the plot was one of the novel’s greatest strengths, divulging and withholding information at exactly the right pace to keep the reader engaged. I found the exploration of the lives of the mega-wealthy and what goes on behind the façade of respectability to be one of the most interesting things about this novel. It gives you a window into how such people live (Charlie name drops dinner with a past Prime Minister, garden parties with a verifiable Lord and Lady), and to just what extent that contrasts with the life Rachel leads. And – importantly – how money and connections enable the rich to act with impunity.

‘Back then, I’m not sure I ever felt guilty, knowing where a portion of our income came from. I’m not sure. You see, when you’re brought up being told certain things are the way of the world, it becomes very hard to question them when you’ve just accepted them for so long. And I’m not sure it bothers me much now.’

A very solid addition to the domestic noir genre, and highly recommended for anyone looking for an engrossing thriller with a bit more substance. My only gripe would be the way this is marketed – it’s not really appropriate to name drop Donna Tartt or to try to market this towards fans of a literary thriller. The title and tagline would also suggest that the dinner is a central point of this thriller – when that’s very much not the case, and the key plot points of the novel span the course of several decades. I hope that readers can go in with the right expectations and enjoy this gripping read for what it is.  

Read if you enjoyed: The Lying Game by Ruth Ware, Our House by Louise Candlish

With thanks to HarperCollins for the advanced copy. The Dinner Guest will be published on 27th May 2021.

Book Review | The Truth Hurts by Rebecca Reid

Yesterday, hurricane Zeta knocked out the power across our state. I just about made my way through a work presentation in the morning, wedged into a corner of our living room, clinging to the 2 bars of signal and 25% left on my battery. By noon, all devices were out of juice – so what better time, free of other distractions, than to devour something in one sitting?

The Truth Hurts is the perfect curl-up-in-bed-on-a-random-Thursday-afternoon-in-a-blackout-while-a-hurricane-passes-through read. It’s domestic noir/twisty romance that starts when our protagonist, 28-year-old Poppy, is ousted from her Nannying post in the small hours of the morning while in Ibiza. With no money and no plan, she rocks up at a bar where she meets the charming financier Drew, in his forties. They begin a whirlwind romance, Drew’s lavish spending a far cry from the kind of lifestyle Poppy has been used to, scraping by for low wages with no family support.

At first, they’re living the perfect fantasy life, the finite holiday romance that is all the sweeter for its ephemeral state.

‘They never shopped for more than a day or two in advance, as if they were worried that this, whatever it was, had a shorter lifespan than the peaches or bread that they bought, as if anything more permanent might jinx the little world they had built.’

But then things get serious – much more serious, as Drew proposes. (None of these are spoilers, by the way – you’ll learn as much from the blurb). Gina, Poppy’s best friend, eggs her on – and they’re soon legally wed. There’s another important ‘catch’ to their relationship: neither of them can talk about the past. ‘It’s not relevant,’ Drew says. ‘I don’t believe that total transparency is always the way toward happiness.’ So Poppy finds herself married to man and she has no idea where he went to school or who was his first kiss or what his mother was named. You might question as to why anyone would agree to such an arrangement – but taking into account the depths of Poppy’s isolation and money troubles, it makes some sense.

They leave Ibiza for the country estate Drew has bought for the both of them, Thursday House in Wiltshire.  Another thing that we readers know: the novel opens with the destruction of this home. So whatever goes down here, we know it can’t be good.

Yes, there are some considerable plot holes, and the ending is all a bit silly – but there’s lots to enjoy in this twisty tale. Drew is a bit two-dimensional, but Poppy is a fleshed-out character, and we get a great insight into her plucky personality through her friendship through the vivacious Gina. There’s also a dual narrative following Poppy’s previous nannying job – where all is not as it seems.  The Truth Hurts isn’t a book with multiple shocks and twists, but it’s addictive and suspenseful – exactly what I was looking for.

‘Something low in her gut shifted as she said it. A feeling like Christmas being over or Sunday night, like the taste in your mouth after you ate something sugary. But that was stupid. The house was perfect. She was just unsettled by the mirror, nervous and superstitious. Everything was fine. She repeated the words over and over inside her head.’

Book Review | The Vow by Debbie Howells

Here are all the elements of a stock psychological thriller: an eerie rural setting, a shady past, an unreliable narrator. And the premise is intriguing: a jilted woman, weeks before her wedding day – her fiancé missing, her a prime suspect.

There is a clever push-pull as we switch to different points of view, teasing out the answer to just how much can we trust our protagonist? Amy has suffered with depression before, after her first marriage fell apart. Her therapist vouches for her unstable state of mind. We see her smashing plates in the kitchen.

Matt, her fiancé, was unable cope with her mood swings, the gaps in her memory, her refusal to sell her beloved cottage.

But Amy maintains theirs is the perfect relationship, and that he’s the man of her dreams.

What is a clue and what is a red herring? Our interest is sustained as Debbie Howells shifts perspectives and makes us question what we can believe. Like Amy, we start looking at everyone as a potential suspect. Howells also writes a dual-time narrative, with flashbacks to 1996 and a tragic incident that occurred in childhood. It doesn’t take long to connect this event to present-day circumstances.

The main reason that this thriller fails to really capture the imagination is that the twist fell somewhat flat, although there was some satisfaction in things being neatly tied up with a bow. The second was the lack of a sustained atmosphere, although all the elements were there to create one; particularly the cottage in the countryside with the herbalist’s garden, the implicit power of nature to heal and to destroy.

This was a fast-paced read, and a strength of the novel was its ability to keep the reader in the dark and its exploration of gaslighting, raising awareness of insidious forms of emotional abuse and manipulation.

‘Nothing too aggressive to start with, just a subtle undermining, chipping away at your reality, until before long, you’re so under their spell, you believe everything they tell you, to the point you question your own sanity…’

I voluntarily reviewed an advanced copy from the publisher. The Vow will be published by Avon UK in October 2020.