Book Review | The Guest List by Lucy Foley

Jules and Will are set to be married on a secluded island off the Irish coast. For Jules, a magazine editor-in-chief, it is all about ‘creating the right optics.’ The problem is, reaching the island involves crossing choppy seas, miles from the mainland – and it’s effectively a mass grave, thought to be the site of a Viking massacre. So, it doesn’t quite scream ‘romance’, but maybe the rugged desolation is part of the appeal?

The happy couple, however, have only known each other a few months, and Jules recently received a hand-delivered note advising her that Will isn’t who she thinks she is. Brushing these concerns aside, she is determined to have her picture-perfect big day – and feature it in the magazine afterwards, of course.

Aside from the bride and groom, there is an ensemble cast of characters in the mix – a mess in a less tightly-woven narrative, but a technique that works well here with Foley’s sufficiently distinct voices. A large part of the story focuses on a sadistic clique of boys from Will’s elite boarding school childhood. When the men find themselves back together to attend the wedding, there’s something dark glittering under their schoolboy manners, a regression back to heady teenage days of mischief and mayhem. Only their high jinks have rather sinister undertones.

‘Here there’s the added danger of the whole island. The wildness of this place gets under your skin. These guests will feel themselves far from the normal moral codes of society, safe from the prying eyes of others. These men are ex–public schoolboys. They’ve spent much of their lives being forced to follow a strict set of rules that probably didn’t end with their leaving school: choices around what university to attend, what job to do, what sort of house to live in. In my experience those who have the greatest respect for the rules also take the most enjoyment in breaking them.’

There’s a Riot Club (disturbing drama about a loosely-fictionalised group of boys at Oxford University) kind of nastiness about the dynamic of the group, an aggressive, toxic masculinity that is all the more shocking for these being family men in their mid-thirties, with children, wives, and sensible jobs. It gives you the sense that some pretty terrible stuff must have gone down during their school days – which, of course, it has. And the ripple effects of childhood ‘fun’, of pranks gone wrong, go far and wide.

‘There wasn’t time for anger at first. Only for the huge, existential shock of it: the bottom dropping out of everything.’

It is a little heavy-handed on the foreshadowing; characters announcing that various signs are ‘ominous’, from the cries of the native birds to the incoming storm. But the atmosphere of barely concealed doom is well crafted from the start, despite the island playing host to a supposedly joyful event. There are lots of backstories, hidden traumas to come to the surface – and it isn’t too difficult to figure out how everything ties into the plot at large – but it is still a careful juggle, and Foley pulls it off. An entertaining read for fans of the claustrophobic and drama-driven psychological thriller.

***.5

Book Review | One by One by Ruth Ware

When you think that tech start-ups have come up with everything, in comes Snoop. Snoop is the brainchild of Topher St Clair-Bridges and Eva van den Berg – two millennials just as monied as their names would suggest. The concept: tune into whatever anyone else in the world is listening to, hearing the same song at exactly the same time. In a few short years, Snoop has risen, on the surface, to stratospheric heights – and they now have to choose between being bought out and going public with an IPO. There are many millions on the line, and deep divisions form amongst the shareholders.

‘He is an arrogant public school boy who got lucky with a great idea and, more important, a mummy and daddy who were prepared to bankroll him.’

In an effort, perhaps, to put on a unified front, the company plan a getaway to an exclusive ski resort: there’s a whole host of characters on the guest list (a complicated introduction to the cast which necessitates some flipping back and forth for the first couple of chapters to remember who’s who). Ware pokes good-natured fun at the try-hard absurdity of millennial corporate culture, with company roles such as ‘Head of Beans’, ‘Chief Nerd’ and ‘Head of Cool’. It’s a pretty insufferable line-up, but unlikeable characters have never really put me off.

‘Her voice is high and sharp, her accent cut-glass, a few vowels away from full Princess Margaret.’

The chalet hosts, Erin and Danny, are in their early twenties and the most likeable of the bunch. It’s their job to give the guests an experience to remember. Only soon the trip becomes memorable – for all the wrong reasons. A fierce snowstorm hits, wiping out their electricity, phone reception and water supply. The group are now facing the daunting prospect of many hours – or days – before they can be rescued. In the fine tradition of Agatha Christie, members of the group start turning up dead. And in the extreme weather, pitch black darkness and encroaching cold, with a killer on the loose, the tension mounts. Understandably.

Despite being compelling and enjoyable, with a gripping and high-stakes denouement, Ware’s latest offering fell a little flat for me. There were too many characters introduced up front, and the reader can deduce pretty quickly who is there as a filler and who we are supposed to be invested in. This narrows down the suspect list rather early on, meaning that the revelations, when they come, are more of a ‘why’ than a ‘who’. Perhaps it’s because I’ve recently read Lucy Foley’s The Hunting Party, but psychological thrillers with groups of people trapped in a house in extreme weather are starting to feel a little too derivative.

That said, I’ll keep coming back to Ruth Ware’s fiction – some of her best works to date include The Lying Game (2017) and The Turn of the Key (2019).

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***.5

With thanks to the publisher for the advanced copy. One by One will be published on November 12th 2020.

Book Review | The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley

Ah, old friends. The sort with whom you can slip back into your old roles, share in-jokes, drink an irresponsible amount of alcohol and imagine yourself eighteen again. There’s something about those longstanding ties of friendship that keeps the characters at the heart of The Hunting Party reconnecting once a year, on New Year’s Eve, to recreate the bond they once had as young adults.

The group were at Oxford together and are now in their early thirties. There’s the attractive, intimidating, queen bee Miranda, married to the equally attractive hedge fund manager Julien. Samira, who was once the life and soul of the party, married to Giles – new parents who have brought their baby along. Nick, close friends with Katie, and Bo, an American recovering drug addict. Mark, one of the ‘lads’ with an aggressive streak, and keen-to-please Emma, his girlfriend – and the only one who isn’t part of the original clique. And then there’s Katie, an ambitious but introverted lawyer in the city, and Miranda’s best friend. If some of these sound like caricatures, I suppose it’s because they are – there isn’t enough time in this pacy read to render all of these characters three-dimensional, and some are very much secondary and deployed as plot devices than having any narrative autonomy in their own right.

Emma is newest to the group, having met Mark after university. Desperate to ingratiate herself with the inner circle, and particularly with Miranda, she books a retreat in the Scottish wilderness. It’s a hostile environment at the best of times; at this time of year, it’s ‘the sort of weather that people die in,’ one character remarks. It’s bleak and beautiful and desolate. It’s also almost impossible to reach in a snowstorm. What could possibly go wrong?

But group aren’t entirely alone up there. Also up at the house are Doug, an ex-serviceman, and Heather, both running away from tragedy. And it’s refreshing to hear a perspective from voices outside of the privileged, Oxbridge-educated, upper-middle class Londoners with their first-world problems (that can get a little grating.) It’s clear that those who choose to holiday in the house really have no idea what they’re potentially letting themselves in for.

‘These are people who live charmed existences. Life has helped them to feel untouchable. They’re so used to having that invisible safety net around them in their normal lives—connectivity, rapid emergency services, health and safety guidelines—that they assume they carry it around with them everywhere. They sign the waiver happily, because they don’t really think about it. They don’t believe in it. They do not expect the worst to happen to them. If they really stopped to consider it, to understand it, they probably wouldn’t stay here at all.’

And, of course, one of them soon ends up dead – and the culprit has to be another within the group. ‘The inner circle has imploded from within,’ Katie remarks, and the carefully-constructed façade will soon come crashing down.

There are – as the blurb will tell you – definite echoes of Agatha Christie and Ruth Ware, particularly with the clever rendering of expansive landscape and claustrophobic atmosphere. Although the large cast of characters was initially overwhelming, I felt that those we heard from in alternating points of view throughout had distinct enough voices so as not to hamper the pace or trajectory. This is the kind of compelling and compulsive psychological thriller I most enjoy – where the monsters come not from outside, but from within – from the people you love and trust the most.

****

Book Review | The Body Lies by Jo Baker

A move from clamour of London to the idyll of a university town was the chance for a fresh start for our unnamed narrator. Having survived a sexual assault by a stranger,  she was desperate to leave the city with her toddler son, Sammy, while her husband stayed in London to fulfil his work responsibilities. She takes up a position as a university MA professor in creative writing, having had some limited success with a published novel earlier in her life.

Our narrator is quite quickly out of her depth, having extra responsibilities heaped onto her whilst dealing with the tensions in her MA group between writers of different sensibilities, and the graphic and esoteric writing of one student in particular, Nicholas. Nicholas professes to the group that everything he writes about is true, and that he’s pushing form to its experimental limits, to ‘sound out the depths, map this darkness.’ He’s a character who wouldn’t be out of place with Donna Tartt’s elite clique of students in The Secret History.

Physicality and the writing of the body is also a theme in the novel that I thought was explored well and with a knowing self-consciousness. An early discussion in the MA group devolves into a heated argument over opening with the ‘anonymous dead girl’ trope in crime fiction, and how such scenes can be faithfully rendered without reducing a female body to the sum of its parts. Our narrator questions this responsibility: ‘I was struggling with my own question of whether there was a way to write female without writing body, and whether there was a way to be female without being reduced to body.’ This is, incidentally, the way The Body Lies begins – with a dead body – and so the narrative offers us no answers about the ‘appropriate’ way to write trauma and the female body, only questions.

The gap between an academic critique of bodies and the way bodies behave in real life is also explored by one of the other ‘handsy’ professors in the English department, someone who has ‘such a heightened critical awareness of fictional bodies,’ and yet is –

‘so blissfully unaware of the actual real-world effects of his own. His presence seemed to tentacle its way into every available space, so that one shrank and sidled and crammed oneself into corners to avoid it.’

Existing as a woman in this world, our narrator finds herself ‘reduced to body.’ She is objectified and her agency is robbed from her – both in the act of her sexual assault and in the appropriating of her life through the process of loosely disguised fiction. Because she suddenly becomes a central – and chilling – part of Nicholas’s twisted narrative, finding herself ‘caught in the landscape of his imagination.’ This fascinating premise is what drew me to this novel: the intertextuality and blurring of the lines between reality and fiction.

The writing style in this novel was perfectly pitched for a literary psychological thriller. The atmosphere is well-drawn and transports the reader to the University town, with its ‘very British kind of melancholy,’ pathetic fallacy deftly employed. And yet, while this started off so strong, I felt that the narrative lost steam as we approached the second half, and the story culminated in a stereotypical and cinematic conclusion that felt trite after the originality of the first half, devolving into predictability in a horror-movie-esque showdown.

I also had some issues with the central characters – whilst some peripheral characters were well-drawn – particularly the sleazy head of department and the earnest American student Meryl – I don’t feel like we got a real sense of Nicholas, beyond his writing. Additionally, whilst our narrator is undergoing deeply traumatic experiences, I found her sense of fatalism and lack of agency to be distressing from a character point of view and frustrating from a narrative point of view. The novel explores some fascinating and complex ideas about fact/fiction and sexual politics, I just wish it could have kept going with the intrigue and momentum that is built up so masterfully in the first half of the novel.  A worthwhile read, despite the shortcomings.

***.5

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Read if you enjoyed: The Secret History by Donna TarttBlack Chalk by Christopher Yates

 

Book Review | Darling Rose Gold by Stephanie Wrobel

Rose Gold was a sick child. Wheelchair-bound, chronically underweight and unable to go to mainstream school because of a mysterious ‘chromosomal abnormality’. Of course, Rose Gold wasn’t actually sick. Her mother, driven by an obsession with control and misguided devotion, poisoned her daily until she was in her late teens. Such kind of insidious evil is not for the faint of heart – especially as it leaves Rose Gold severely emaciated and stunted in her growth.

Now Rose Gold is in her early twenties, with a young baby, and her mother’s prison term is up. In a decision that leaves the small community of Deadwick, Illinois incredulous, she invites her mother to come and live with them while she gets back on her feet. She’s been manipulated and abused by her mother her whole life – is it possible she’s still under her spell?

‘All I’ve ever wanted, as a mother, is to be needed. The first few years of your child’s life, no one is more important to her than you, not even her father. That biological imperative demands to be satisfied, over and over and over. And then your child turns ten or twelve or eighteen, and suddenly you’re no longer critical. How are we supposed to cope? We mothers give up everything for our children, until they decide they don’t want our everything anymore.’

The narrative flips between the point of view of Rose Gold in the past and her mother Patty in the present, the two narratives working their way towards each other as we discover the depths to which they’ll go to settle a score. Rose Gold isn’t your typical victim – she’s gone through hell, but she’s not the butter-wouldn’t-melt angel that these characters are sometimes portrayed to be. Friendless and decidedly at odds with the rest of society, while we feel compassion because of her traumatic childhood, she isn’t a likeable character. In fact, it’s hard to root for anyone in this book – none of the characters are in the least bit likeable. It’s an interesting take on the victim narrative, but it does run the risk of reader apathy towards the eventual outcome.

There were some interesting secondary narrative threads that added dimension to the story and kept me reading to discover how they would end – Rose Gold’s ‘online boyfriend’ who she’s never met in real life, and the discovery of her long-lost father who abandoned her pregnant mother two decades ago. But there were missed opportunities to explore the psychological causes and consequences of Munchausen by proxy, and the direction of the narrative took a predictable turn when you come to figure out the puzzle pieces and character motivations. A pacy read – I finished it in a couple of days – but ultimately not as satisfying or well developed as it could have been.

***

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.

Book Review | The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware

No one does creepy, claustrophobic settings quite like Ruth Ware. She has a way of describing places that gets under your skin, her knack for drawing a picture of a place and then confining her characters there, prison-like, as the story unfolds.

The locale in question here is a renovated Victorian mansion in the Scottish Highlands, a strange and almost monstrous marriage of modernist and 19th century. Owned by architects Mr and Mrs Elincourt, the house is also home to four young girls.

‘Somehow the contrast between the mathematically severe modernist lines of the glass room and the fragile antique bowls was almost absurd, and I felt slightly off-balance. It was like the rest of the house in reverse—Victorian stuffiness punctuated by splashes of space-age modernity.’

It gets even eerier as we find out that the Elincourts have rigged Heatherbrae House up as a smart home, controlled by sinister-sounding app, Happy. The doors, lights, speakers – even the coffee machine – are manipulated through technology. It’s enough to make you want to immediately unplug the Alexa and unscrew the Wi-fi enabled lightbulbs in your own home.

When Rowan, a dissatisfied Nursery assistant in London, sees the post advertising for a nanny – complete with a generous compensation package – she leaps at the opportunity. Before long she’s packed her worldly goods into a few suitcases and is on a train bound for the Highlands. Yes, she’s the fourth nanny that year, and yes, the parents do seem particularly desperate for someone to start. But she shrugs that off – she’s not superstitious, and she’s worked with difficult children before. She’s got no idea what awaits her at Heatherbrae House.

‘People do go mad, you know, if you stop them from sleeping for long enough…’

Ware’s narrative starts with Rowan writing a letter, from prison, to a lawyer, desperate for help in exonerating her of the terrible crime of which she’s been accused – child murder. Giving us an unreliable narrator – hers is the only perspective we get throughout the novel – is a smart homage to Henry James’ original story, The Turn of the Screw – and as this story unfolds, we’re never quite sure if we can trust Rowan’s version of events. And despite it being a story told in reverse – we know that a child will die – the way it is plotted keeps the reader in the dark until the end.

Ware can’t always maintain the suspense or see stories out to their full conclusion, struggling to do justice to the accomplished narrative that’s come before. To an extent, that is the case here – at 80% through I questioned how it could all be wrapped up so quickly – but rather than the ambiguous ending leaving me unsatisfied, I think it was a fitting conclusion, though there were a few loose ends, and others too easily resolved.

What worked so well for me in this novel is the control over the tension. Building to an almost unbearable level – particularly as night falls on the isolated house – is only to be reined back in at the dawn of a new day. In the glare of sunlight, almost everything seems like it’ll be fine. This push-pull of the tension is very well accomplished, the stand out feature of this novel. In the warm light of day – with the arrival of the handsome gardener, a chuckling baby on Rowan’s hip, and sunlight pouring into the kitchen, we almost believe, too, that things are going to be okay. Spoiler alert: they’re not.

 

Book Review | Those People by Louise Candlish

Lowland Way, a suburban London enclave, has earned itself a reputation. With ever-rising house prices and the invention of ‘play-out Sunday’, a no-cars rule designed to transform the urban street into a 1950’s child’s utopia, it’s a reputation they’ll go far to protect. But just how far?

‘Today, Lowland Way would be back to its community-spirited, rising-house-prices best.’

When Darren Booth moves into house number one, inherited from his Aunt, and immediately begins construction work, there’s a ripple of distaste down the street. Distaste which has an undeniable class tilt; in his workman’s gear, with his foul-mouth and cigarette habit, Booth is at odds with the carefully cultivated reputation of the middle-class community. His being there, with his girlfriend Jodie, begins to threaten the harmony of the residents.

Booth is, by all accounts, the neighbour from hell. He runs a used-car business from his front drive; his construction is an eyesore and he gets outrageously drunk with his girlfriend and plays heavy metal music at all hours of the day and night. Still, what starts as a case of nimbyism quite quickly becomes a lot darker: the residents of Lowland way become convinced that he is a scourge on the community who must be stopped at all costs.

‘He was like a teenager coming home from holiday and hoping to see the girl he wanted to get off with – expect he was in fact a middle-aged man coming home from holiday and hoping to see the neighbour he wanted to kill. How had it got this surreal?’

There is a nod to Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express – one of the characters even refers to the famous plot – and there is a sense of this here, where it seems that every single neighbour has a reason to despise Booth and Jodie. There isn’t any of Christie’s finesse – there’s a large cast of characters, and yet we don’t really get under the skin of any of them, nor are they given any real distinguishable features. The twists and turns, whilst well-plotted in the context of the novel, aren’t as shocking or revelatory as they might be. Lacking in true mystery and suspense we’ve come to expect from a domestic noir, it was nevertheless an enjoyable, pacy read; an interesting comment on mob mentality and fearing those who you set apart as different.

If you’re looking to read a Louise Candlish thriller, I recommend Our House, which I reviewed back in 2018.

Book Review | The Death of Mrs Westaway by Ruth Ware

Twenty-one-year-old Hal tells fortunes on Brighton pier. She ekes out an existence – just about enough to continue to pay the rent on the small seaside flat that she shared with her mother, who died three years ago. With no family or friends to speak of, she finds herself in dark financial waters. That is, until, a miracle arrives – a letter detailing of a long-lost grandmother who has bequeathed her a sizeable fortune.

Hal knows it must be a mistake. But in the depths of her despair, she decides that perhaps – just perhaps – she can make this work. Telling people what they need to hear is how she makes a living. So, alone, she takes the train across to Cornwall, arriving at the old lady’s funeral on a bitingly cold day, ready to assume her role as granddaughter.

Upon meeting her ‘relatives,’ Hal gets sucked into her fabrication. But something else is simmering underneath the surface. She knows that the house – having fallen into disrepair – and the bitter housekeeper Mrs Warren – are hiding secrets.

‘The truth had been a horror that she could not bear to face while she was alive. Instead her grandmother had waited until she herself was beyond pain – and unleashed this catastrophe on the living.’

It takes until the very final few chapters for things to come together – but unfortunately, things don’t really come together – at least not in a coherent or totally believable way. The plot meanders along and I found myself detached from the characters, getting mixed up between the brothers and lost in the threads of motivations.

‘And I thought – This is it. This is what I have been waiting all my life to feel, this is what those girls at school used to talk about, this is what the songs mean, and the poems were written for. This is it. This is it.

But the sun has gone now, and it’s winter, and I feel very cold. And I am no longer sure if I was right.’

Ruth Ware is a talented writer and weaves a good story, but The Death of Mrs Westaway fell short on this occasion – too much of a slow-burn, and more of a drama than psychological thriller. For an example of Ware’s fantastic storytelling, I would recommend instead The Lying Game