C.C. MacDonald’s debut novel is a psycho-thriller which mines the rich seam of middle-class anxiety and social neuroses which has become a staple of recent English crime fiction. Naomi and Charlie, along with toddler Prue, have relocated from the hipster London district they can no longer afford, kissing goodbye to the artisan bakeries, faux village ambience and the coffee shops where the wi-fi signal is as vital as the alchemy of the barrista. They now live in a rambling Victorian house in Margate, on the Kent coast, a town which MacDonald himself refers to as Shoreditch-on-Sea.
aomi is a feature writer of some sort, while Charlie is an entrepreneur designer in the tech industry. While a succession of sharp-intake-of-breath builders and carpenters transform the neglected house into a Sunday supplement paradise, Naomi is desperate to conceive a second child. Naturally, both she and Charlie have smartphone apps which track her fertility cycle and give the couple vital windows when hurried coupling should produce little Prue’s sibling. Sadly, none of the digital wizardry seems to work. Charlie is all-too-often not up-to-snuff, and Naomi’s obsessive quest is becoming counter productive.
While on her daily run there and back to Prue’s nursery school, Naomi meets a stunningly attractive alpha male called Sean, and his bluff insouciance is such a contrast with Charlie’s needy self-absorption that she is smitten. One thing leads to another – the ‘another’ being hurried stand-up sex in the shower cubicle at a local leisure centre – and guess what? Sean’s urgent thirty seconds has done the job, and Naomi is, at last, pregnant, but possibly by the wrong man.
Cue much heart-searching by Naomi as she tries to get to grips with the moral dilemma of her situation. Sean, however, is not around, however, either to help or to hinder. When Naomi discovers that Sean was only at the nursery on a baby-sitting job, she tries to find him. His apparent disappearance is resolved when Naomi discovers that he has not only been hiding in plain sight, but actually conspiring to stalk her and threaten the already fragile happy family she has tried to create.
acDonald doesn’t set out to make us laugh with obvious satire, but he has fun casting a jaundiced eye on Naomi’s preoccupations. She is at a rather pretentious playgroup called ‘Sing, Sign and Movement.’
“She looks around the huge room at bored dads looking at football news on their phones, harassed mums in sportswear attempting to marshall small-scale civil wars between siblings and sugar-amped children rocketing around like derailed dodgems. She never feels further from her life in London than when she’s somewhere like this.”
Later, she is living the life at a popular café:
“Kids run riot between the replica Eames chairs as Charlie bustles between them carrying a tray. Some people talk a good game when it comes to doing everything for their children but the parents here have come for the artisan coffee and to talk to people like them in a décor that resembles something they’ve seen on Instagram and sod it if their child has to fight with ten others to play with the lone Ikea kitchen.”
Any sense of lifestyle mockery, gentle or otherwise, dissipates once we reach the final quarter of the book. Naomi discovers that whoever Sean really is, his plans for her and her family involve much than a few moments of lust. I certainly didn’t see the plot twist coming, and MacDonald (right) springs one surprise after another, right up to the final paragraphs. If you can’t make sense of the brief chapter interludes which consist of MSN messages (remember them?) between some bitchy schoolgirls, don’t fret – you will.
While Happy Ever After won’t leave you with a warm and life affirming glow about people’s basic decency, it is a rattling good read, full of acerbic observation and dark character insights. It is published by Harvill Secker and is out on 23rd January.
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