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T A Cotterell

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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TRANSWORLD 2017

At a gathering in The Charlotte Street Hotel on Wednesday evening, and against a backdrop of their impressive collection of recent best-sellers, Transworld showed that they are determined to hit the ground running in 2017. We were were introduced to five writers who will be making their debuts. Each read from their novel, and then took part in a question and answer session.

01joseph-knox

First up was Joseph Knox, with his Manchester based police thriller, Sirens. Unsurprisingly, in the short extract we heard, it was raining! Joseph spoke about his love of Noir – which he defined as “Beautiful Doom”, and told us about how he had been hooked into the world of Noir by a memorable sequence of movies starring Humphrey Bogart. His advice to aspiring writers was simple – make time for your writing, but don’t beat yourself up when it doesn’t go well. Sirens will be out on 12th January 2017.

02-katie-khanKatie Khan took the stand with something very, very different. Hold Back The Stars, which will be published on 26th January is a love story, but with a difference. It is part sci fi, part fantasy and part romance, and is the story of a young couple who are forced to prove their love in order to stay together. Katie reminded us that it was only a few years ago that making friends – and finding lovers – on social media would have been unthinkable, but her book takes us forward to a time when such liaisons will be commonplace.

03-rachel-rysAustralia 1939, and The Lucky Country is the setting for A Dangerous Crossing, the upcoming mystery thriller from Rachel Rhys. In a sense, this is a different kind of debut, as Rachel Rhys is the pen-name of an already- successful psychological suspense author. A Dangerous Crossing is her debut under this name and is inspired by a real life account of a voyage to Australia, during which two passengers die in mysterious circumstances, and war has been declared in Europe. Rachel reminded us that in a pre-digital age, a long ocean crossing was the perfect place for people to hide, and in her book everyone has a secret, or is running away from something. The novel will be published on 6th April.

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Mahsuda Snaith provided us with a complete contrast of tone and subject matter. The Things We Thought We Knew is a minutely observed tale of a girl made prisoner by her surroundings – a mundane housing estate – and her own illness. Mahsuda said that the plot itself was not autobiographical, but the setting was a faithfully painted portrait of the world she herself grew up in. She is a very accomplished short story writer, and when questioned about the problems of going from the short form to the full length novel, she admitted that she has been writing this book since she was sixteen, and it has been revisited many times. The Things We Thought We Knew  is out on 15th June.

05-t-a-coterellBristol resident T A Cotterell was the final reader, with an extract from What Alice Knew. Cotterell read History of Art at Cambridge University and, significantly, the central character in his book is a portrait painter. He explained that the core theme of the book is family secrets, and told us of a real life instance when his mother name dropped someone of whom he had never heard, and when he asked who he was, he received the disconcerting reply, “Oh, he was my handler in MI6!”. The thought of his mother being a very successful intelligence operator in communist Hungary led him to explore the theme of how much we owe our children in terms of the truth. The novel asks many questions. How far would you go to protest someone you love? Would you lie to the police knowing your loved one is guilty as charged, or would you watch their life fall apart because of a terrible accident? What Alice Knew is out on 20th April.

Fully Booked will be reviewing each of these titles nearer to their date of publication, but if you wish to pre-order any of them, the details are already up Amazon pages.

 

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