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Domestic Noir

THE BODY LIES . . . Between the covers

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As the immortal Juliet once asked, “What’s in a name?” To her, not very much, as I recall, but it takes a brave novelist – such as Daphne Du Maurier in Rebecca – to keep the narrator and central character anonymous. Jo Baker uses this literary ploy in her latest novel, The Body Lies. Even the title is ambiguous, but the young woman at the centre of this dark domestic thriller is anything but anonymous or sketchily drawn.

TBL coverIn the absence of a name, what do we know of her? She is a writer who, like so many others in real life, has been published but needs a day job to stay afloat. She is married to a rather dull but worthy London schoolteacher. They have a young son, Sammy and, in an effort to re-establish her identity she makes a successful application for a lecturing job at a university in the north of England. Husband Mark is unwilling to leave his post, and so they agree to live separately but meet up at weekends. At the very beginning of the novel the woman is assaulted by a stranger while she is out jogging: the attack is not physically serious but leaves deep mental scars.

She finds herself in a provincial university which is aspirational rather than distinguished, and once she has conquered her nerves about delivering lectures, her main challenge is to conduct tutorial sessions with a group of would-be authors, each drawn to the crime fiction genre. The students are a diverse bunch: a voluble and emotive American woman who is, if nothing else, extremely ‘woke’; a suit-and-tie solicitor who is a fan of gritty police procedurals where the corpses are invariably female; most troubling – and troubled – is a young man called Nicholas who is writing a stream-of-consciousness narrative about a mysterious death which could be suicide, or then again….

When Nicholas and his tutor go beyond the accepted boundaries of student-teacher relationships, the story moves from a wry and sardonic satire on the political and social politics of schools and universities, and takes on a much darker hue. Nicholas disappears, but sends in the weekly updates to his work-in-progress via email – and they are nothing more or less than a blow-by-blow account of his most recent sexual encounter.

Jo BakerAll the familiar tropes of modern British domestic noir kick in, to good effect. We have a stalker, marital infidelity, a woman alone in a remote cottage, the debilitating after effects of recreational drug use, a murder disguised as a suicide and, tellingly, a very scary confrontation on a Wuthering Heights-style moor.

Jo Baker has written an intriguing and very clever novel which, while asking probing questions of readers and writers of crime fiction regarding their tolerance of the woman-as-victim trope, never preaches. Her nameless but vividly real central character is memorable for her courage, resilience and sheer humanity. The Body Lies is published by Doubleday and is out on 13th June.

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WATCHING YOU . . . Between the covers

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Josephine “Joey” Mullen has returned home to Bristol from living and working hand-to-mouth in sunny Spain. With empty pockets and zero job prospects, she might be downhearted, but on the positive side she has a handsome new husband and a generous older brother who is prepared to share his home with the newly-weds. While Joey finds a job dishing out chicken nuggets and mopping up puke at a children’s party venue, Alfie (nice-but-dim and with a very fit bum, if you are into that sort of thing) works in a bar and is trying to establish a painting and decorating business.

Watching You front011Watching You by Lisa Jewell takes us to the chic urban village of Melville Heights. Jack Mullen is a successful consultant in cardiology, while his wife Rebecca is “something in systems analysis.” A couple of doors down live the Fitzwilliam family. Tom is a charismatic and nationally renowned Head Teacher with an impressive record of turning round failing high schools. His adoring wife Nicola has no CV as such, unless you want to list an over-awareness of body image and a devotion to the latest fads in fashion and diet. Their teenage son, Freddie – an only child, naturally – is very keen on all things technical, particularly digital binoculars, spy software, and a fascination with the lives and movements of anyone he can see from his bedroom window.

Watching You back012This is a clever, clever murder mystery. Lisa Jewell gives us the corpse right at the beginning – while keeping us guessing about whose it is – and then, by shrewd manipulation of the timeline we are introduced to the possible perpetrators of the violent death. By page 100, they have formed an orderly queue for our attention. Of course there’s beautiful, feckless Joey and her husband Alfie. Freddie Fitzwilliam is clearly at the sharp end of the Asperger spectrum, but what about his bird-like – and bird-brained mother? Schoolgirls Jenna and Bess are clearly fixated – for different reasons – on their headteacher, and as for Jenna’s mum, with her persecution complex and incipient madness, she is clearly on the brink of doing something destructive, either to herself or someone else. And who is the mysterious woman who flew into a rage with Tom ten years earlier while the Fitzwilliams were on a family holiday to the Lake District?

Domestic Noir in crime fiction borrows jealousy, lust, anger, greed and pride from the early Christian list of vices but no modern thriller in the genre ignores the fatal flaw of obsession. The Big ‘O’ is certainly at the root of the plot of Watching You, and we willingly suspend our disbelief that so many disturbed characters should end up within a stone’s throw of each other in a posh Bristol suburb.

Lisa JewellLisa Jewell peels away veil after veil, but like Salome in front of Herod, she tantalises us with exquisite cruelty. Just when we think we have understood the truth about the complex relationships between the characters, we are faced with another enigma and a further conundrum. There are flashes of absolute brilliance throughout this gripping novel. The relationship between Jenna and Bess is beautifully described and even though we suspect he may end up with blood on his hands, Freddie’s strange but exotic view of the world around him makes him completely appealing. In the end, of course,we learn the identity of the corpse and that of the murderer but, just like the Pinball Wizard, there has got to be a twist. Lisa Jewell (left) provides it with the last 39 words of this very special book, and it is not so much a twist as a breathtaking literary flourish.

Watching You is published by Century, and is out on 12th July.

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THE SECRETS SHE KEEPS . . . Between the covers

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Two women. Two lives. Two worlds. Two pregnancies. Two sets of very different secrets.

Meghan Shaughnessy is a former journalist but now something of a super-mum via her blog about family life. Her husband Jack is an ambitious and confident sports presenter for a television company. They live, comfortably and pleasantly, with their two existing children, in an affluent district beside the River Thames, a district so full of delis, bookshops, fine restaurants and boutiques that the residents, rightfully smug about their little enclave, have added the word ‘Village’ to the perfectly acceptable name by which it has been known since being recorded in The Domesday Book.

Meghan’s third pregnancy is something of an accident but nonetheless welcomed. She has been advised by her obstetrician to have a Caesarian section this time, to avoid the painful tearing she has suffered at the the previous births, but she is anxious to explain this to her thousands of blog readers, as she doesn’t want them to think that she is Too Posh to Push.

Secrets coverAgatha Fyfle works for peanuts in a ‘Village’ supermarket but Mr Patel, her boss, is not the kind of man to be offering generous maternity leave. He is so tight that he once docked her pay for putting the wrong price on a tin of peaches. The father of her baby is far, far away on a Royal Navy ship patrolling the Indian Ocean, chasing Somali pirates. Despite her nothing job and the desperate ordinariness of her life, Agatha has her imagination and her dreams:

“Shrugging on my winter coat, I slip out of the rear door, skirting the rubbish bins and discarded cardboard boxes. Pulling my hood over my head, I imagine I look like Meryl Streep in The French Lieutenant’s Woman. She was a whore abandoned by a French ship’s officer, and she spent her life staring out to sea, waiting for him to return. My sailor is coming home to me and I’m giving him a baby.”

Agatha lives in a shabby flat, and her life would be as grey as a December dawn were it not for one simple blessing:

“I love being pregnant, feeling my baby inside me, stretching, yawning, kicking. It’s like I’m never alone any more. I have someone to keep me company and listen to my stories.”

Agatha ‘knows’ Meghan in the sense that she comes into the shop to buy essentials, but they have never spoken. Agatha also knows that frumpy women stacking shelves are rarely – if ever – noticed by customers, but sometimes, of a morning, she watches wistfully through the window as Meghan takes her children Lucy and Lachlan to their highly regarded schools. Some days Meghan goes off to her yoga group, other days she meets other Yummy Mummies for skinny cappucinos, chai lattes and pots of herbal teas.

Robotham tells his tale through alternate chapters spoken by Agatha and Meghan. The two women are due to give birth at around the same time, and as their due dates come nearer, we learn more and more about their families, their childhoods, their hopes and fears. And their secrets. Ah yes, those secrets. Those mistakes, those misfortunes, those cruelties of Fate, even those occasional acts of mad jealousy collison between which turn lives on their heads, and inseminate the body with an embryonic demon who grows daily stronger and more malevolent until it is time to burst out and cause devastation to both the host and their nearest and dearest.

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Robotham orchestrates a collision between the lives of Agatha and Meghan. The two ships are slowly and inexorably heading towards each other and by the time they realise what is happening, there is no time to turn.

It would be an act of criminal irresponsibility to reveal any more about the plot. Suffice it to say that Robotham boxes very cleverly for several chapters, but then unleashes a series of crunching blows which put our preconceptions on the canvas. To say the plot twists would be an understatement – it spins, but always in a stable way, a little like a gyroscope, dizzyingly fast but always under control.

This is a brilliant example of Domestic Noir. The tension is ratcheted up a notch at a time, and sometimes it becomes almost unbearable. We know what is about to happen but, like Meghan and Agatha, we are powerless to alter the course of events. Readers of Robotham’s Joseph O’Loughlin novels will not be surprised at the psychological intensity in The Secrets She Keeps. Readers new to the author need to be prepared for an uncomfortable few hours.

We reviewed Close Your Eyes, a novel featuring Robotham’s forensic psychologist O’Loughlin, a little earlier and you can check buying choices for The Secrets She Keeps by clicking this link.

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THE ORPHANS … between the covers

 

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A beach in Goa, 1992. A boy and a girl, a brother and his older sister, are amusing themselves at the water’s edge. Their parents, unconventional, more in love with their own escapist lifestyle than they are with their children, are nearby. But then they aren’t nearby. They are gone. What happens next is a blur of childlike confusion, incomprehension and false memory. But Jess and Ro are now orphans.

The years pass. The remains of the children’s father are eventually discovered in the jungle not far from the beach, but of their mother, Sophie, not a trace. Well meaning but reluctantly relatives have cared for and schooled Jess and Ro until they pass from their scarred childhood into the uncertainty of adulthood. Jess, though has made a success of her life. She is a successful commercial lawyer, has a treasured daughter with husband Charlie, and she lives in a delightful house just on the edge of Clapham Common in south London.

But little brother Ro – short for his nickname, Sparrow – has fared poorly. His school days were troubled and tormented, and he has carried the trauma of that hazy day on a tropical beach like a monster clinging to his back. He has led a largely nomadic life and, like the obsessed Captain Ahab, he travels the world in search of his lost mother. His most recent attempt to track her down leads him to a hamlet in rural Ireland where Sophie Considine was known. This particular trip ends badly, however, and he makes his way to England.

Annemarie-NearyAnnemarie Neary gives us a chilling sense of separate events which are not fatal in themselves but deadly when they collide, and while Ro is making his way to Clapham, the normally self-assured Jess is in trouble at work. She has rejected the advances of a senior partner at an office social, and he uses the rebuff to light a fire under Jess’s professional life.

Ro arrives at his sister’s home and Neary skilfully describes how the young man’s near-autism and utter self-obsession starts to undermine the household. Charlie already holds Ro in contempt after previous clashes but the live-in au pair, a balefully unpleasant young Brazilian woman called Hana, is the final ingredient in a the shaking up of a poisonous cocktail of guilt, lust and fractured relationships.

Sensing that he has at last found gold at the end of his rainbow, Ro projects his fixation on Maya, the wife of an old family friend, Eddie. The fact that Eddie was part of the loose community of beach bums in Goa convinces Ro that Maya – complete with a tell-tale scar where a tattoo has been removed – is his mother.

Neary has a silken touch and she spins a web of potential tragedy that is gossamer light, shot through with poetry, but one that will draw you, the reader, into its folds and not let you escape. Here, she describes Ro’s conviction that his lonely quest is over.

“And as he passes under the great avenue of chestnuts, his heart rises like freshly baked bread and he imagines himself a stork, not a swallow. If he were a stork, with a sash in his beak, this is where he would take his mother. He would carry her up into the high branches, make a nest there for her. He would keep her safe from predators, out of the reach of the grubby little world.”

The book succeeds on every level: it is near perfect as a tragedy in that it has the three Aristotelian demands of drama – the unities of time, place and action. Like the tragic figures of Hardy and Shakespeare the doomed protagonist is not totally devoid of human decency, and this makes their downfall ever more bitter because we onlookers can see that it is preventable. The Orphans is a tale as dark as ebony, and as convincing a description of a descent into madness as I have ever read. It is published by Hutchinson and will be available in July as hardback, paperback and Kindle.

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WHAT ALICE KNEW … Between the covers

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WAKBack in late 2016, I had the pleasure of listening to T A Cotterell read an extract from his debut novel, What Alice Knew. He made it clear that this was a book about secrets, and about that strange beast, family life. Family life. The words are anodyne, mild and reassuring, but we all know that many families are not what they seem to be to an outsider. Cotterell’s question, though, is simply this: “How well do members of a family know each other?”

This particular family is as close to the notion of perfection as can be. Husband Ed Sheahan is a senior obstrician at a Bristol hospital while Alice Sheahan, née Tenterden, is a successful and highly regarded portrait painter. They have two adorable children and a beautiful house in a sought-after Bristol district – one of those places which delights in calling itself a village, complete with ‘proper’ shops which strive to be terribly artisan and traditional.

As Alice is driving home from painting a commission in Suffolk, she takes a ‘phone call from daughter Nell. The first five words send a stab of anxiety through her. “Mummy – Daddy hasn’t come home.” Ed Sheahan simply isn’t the kind of father to leave his children alone in the house at night. He is not answering his mobile, he is not at the hospital, his suitcase, hold-all and travel bag are still in their cupboard. Eventually Alice discovers that Ed was last seen at a party with some younger colleagues.

Much to Alice’s relief, the absent Ed finally breaks surface and reveals, much to his embarrassment, that he had drunk well rather than wisely and had passed out in an expensive apartment belonging to a mature art student called Araminta Lyall. The apartment is in the district of Stokes Croft, which Cotterell describes as:

“..home to artists’ studios and vegan cafés, squatter collectives that sprout in disused buildings, all-night clubs, wraith-like dealers, protest groups.”

Ed Sheahan makes his way home very much with his tail between his legs. Alice is actually rather amused, because he is no sort of a party animal and much less a drinker. She is just happy that the temporary scare and anxiety have passed with no real harm being done to the family. But – and of course there is always a ‘but’ in domestic noir thrillers – her contentment is short lived when she reads the newspaper headline SOCIETY GIRL DIES, and when she reads to story, one name leaps out at her. Araminta Lyall.

T-A-CotterellFrom this point on, the dreamy soft-focus life of the Sheahan family descends into a nightmare reality, all jagged edges and harshly grating contrasts. The visual metaphor is actually totally appropriate, as one of the great strengths of the novel is how Alice sees much of life through her painterly eyes. Rose madder, cadmium yellow, viridian, alizarin crimson and flake white. Alice’s world is the world of the quaintly named oil paints on her palette. It came as no surprise to me to learn that Cotterell (right) studied History of Art at Cambridge.

One of the most gripping chapters in the book is the description of Alice being commissioned to paint a mystery sitter, who turns out to be a woman who was her best friend at school, but from whom she parted under traumatic circumstances. The woman has become dazzlingly rich through business, and has changed her name. In an atmosphere that could be sliced with a razor, the two eventually come face to face. Even if you read another two hundred books this year you will not experience a more tense and excoriating account of the power of memory, guilt and bitterness.

The tale is told from first to last by Alice herself. This poses interesting possibilities for the reader, particularly in the light of the shocks contained in the final few pages of the novel. Is Alice a reliable narrator? Does her ruthless honesty as a portraitist extend to what she is telling us – and herself? Cotterell certainly takes a huge gamble and puts our credulity on the table as stakes. I think it works, thus seating him up there on the High Table where the more established purveyors of domestic noir sup and dine. As ever, you must judge for yourselves. What Alice Knew is published by Transworld/ Black Swan/Penguin Random House and is available here.

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