Anna MacDonald, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Splice, TBR 21

‘A Jealous Tide’ by Anna MacDonald

Fiction – hardcover; Splice; 201 pages; 2020.

I don’t think there was any ever doubt that a novel about writers, London, the river Thames and walking — as seen through the eyes of an Australian woman from Melbourne — would appeal to me, but I was rather more enamoured by Anna MacDonald’s A Jealous Tide than I expected.

I first saw this debut novel reviewed on Lisa’s blog ANZLitLovers and immediately ordered it direct from Splice, the UK-based publisher. (Unfortunately, I had a long wait owing to Covid-19, but when it finally arrived, there was a lovely printed note inside offering discounts on future Splice purchases as a thank you for “your support and patience”.)

In the comment I left under Lisa’s review, I said:

This has my name written all over it! I am an obsessive walker! I have lived in Melbourne! I have lived in London, a short stroll from Hammersmith Bridge, and wandered by the Thames every single day for almost 21 years!

Cue extra excitement when I began reading the book to find that the unnamed narrator, who flies into Heathrow from Tullamarine, stays in a bedsit on Rowan Road in Hammersmith. My first job in London (in 1998) was at Haymarket Publishing, based on the corner of Rowan Road and Hammersmith Road, and later when I left that job but still lived in the area, I walked past Rowan Road almost every day en route to the tube station or the High Street. You couldn’t really get a book more local.

It also contains lots of vivid descriptions of the Thames towpath, taking in Putney, Hammersmith and Barnes, that I have walked on (and cycled along) hundreds and hundreds of times. I repatriated in June 2019, but reading this book transported me back to the place I’d called home for 20 years. It was a bit of a discombobulating experience, I must say.

Mesmirising tale

The story itself is mesmirising, written in simple but eloquent prose, and the further you get into it the more hypnotic it becomes. It’s almost like being immersed in someone’s lucid dream.

It details the interior life of a woman from Melbourne who eases her restlessness by walking.

Since my mid-teens, walking had become one way of scratching the itch, and offered a partial remedy to restlessness. I tramped the streets of the neighbourhood where I grew up, learning to read the terrain as I made repeated journeys over the same ground.

An academic, she’s working on a “project revolving around the imagery of water in the novels and essays of Virginia Woolf”. She’s already spent some time in London, but now she’s planning a second trip to finish her research at the British Library.

But when she returns to London, basing herself in Hammersmith near the river, her research expands to cover accounts of the drowned, whether by accident or intent, and includes everything from anecdotes to eyewitness accounts. This becomes an obsession, to the point where her grip on reality begins to waver.

Tale of survival

Her story is interleaved with that of a widow who throws herself into the Thames and is rescued by a returned soldier from the Great War. This is an imagined account, told in the third person, of a real life incident that is memorialised on a plaque on Hammersmith Bridge (and which, shamefully, I have never noticed despite walking across the bridge hundreds of times):

Lieutenant Charles Campbell Wood R.A.F. of Bloemfontein South Africa dived from this spot into the Thames at midnight, 27 December 1919 and saved a woman’s life.  He died from the injuries received during the rescue.

These two narrative threads, of a woman studying watery ends and of another who survives a near-drowning almost a century earlier, build a deeply contemplative tale rich in metaphor and symbolism, one that examines how water can be both a refuge and a danger.

The narrator becomes so consumed by her work she lets the story of the woman and the lieutenant, along with the many other stories she discovers, infiltrate her own narrative. Space and time begin to lose their meaning. The stories merge and become entwined. It almost feels as if the woman needs to come up for air, to free herself from a metaphysical drowning. It becomes frighteningly claustrophobic before ending on a comforting note.

Note that there’s no dialogue in the book, next to no plot and structurally it meanders like the river Thames. It shouldn’t actually work as a novel. But there’s something about the short chapters, the literary prose and the ideas contained within that makes A Jealous Tide a compelling and beguiling read.

This is my 22nd book for #AWW2021 and my 21st for #TBR21 in which I planned to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. Yes, this review is very late, because I read this book way back in April, jotted down some notes and then struggled to put my thoughts into any kind of order — and even now I’m not entirely happy with what I’ve written.

Author, Book review, Elizabeth MacNeal, Fiction, historical fiction, London, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘The Doll Factory’ by Elizabeth MacNeal

Fiction – Kindle edition; Picador; 384 pages; 2019.

Art, freedom and obsession collide in Elizabeth MacNeal’s The Doll Factory. This debut novel marries historical fiction with elements of the psychological thriller to create a proper page-turner. I practically devoured this book on a seven-hour train journey (from Kalgoorlie to Perth) last weekend and have been thinking about it ever since.

It’s set in London during the Great Exhibition and the era of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB), a loose association of English painters who rebelled against the art standards of the day (read more about them here), and focuses on a young woman called Iris Whittle who is drawn into their circle, first as an artist’s model, but then as a burgeoning painter in her own right.

Along the way, she attracts the unwanted attention of a taxidermist, Silas Reed, who is constantly in pursuit of the weird and wonderful. Silas becomes obsessed with Iris and her deformity — a collarbone that is twisted out of shape so that she has a slight stoop to her left side — and makes plans to befriend her, whether she likes it or not.

What results is a fast-paced story in which Iris, oblivious to Silas’s increasingly dangerous obsession with her, falls prey to his dark, manipulative ways…

Painterly ambition

When we first meet independently minded Iris she is working (and living) in a doll factory (hence the book’s title) alongside her twin sister Rose, painting faces onto dozens of porcelain dolls every day.

The long 12-hour shifts are monotonous and dull. Iris dreams of doing something more interesting with her life. She has a talent for painting and longs to pursue this, but, of course, conventions of the day generally restrict women from leading lives that are anything other than domestic.

A chance encounter with a member of the PRB, attracted to her flame-red hair and quiet beauty, offers her a means of escape. In exchange for becoming an artist’s model, she will be given art lessons to explore her talent.

But what seems like a no-brainer is fraught with pitfalls, for to do so she will earn the wrath of society (to be an artist’s model at the time was akin to being a whore) and her family will disown her.

There are further complications because Iris has no idea that a man she accidentally bumped into at Hyde Park a few weeks earlier has developed a “thing” for her. Silas Reed’s quiet pursuit of her goes relatively unnoticed. She ignores his later invite to visit his shop (“Silas Reed’s Shop of Curiosities Antique and New”) and is unaware that the Great Exhibition ticket that arrives in the post is an anonymous gift from him.

Being oblivious to these “signs” only puts Iris in more danger for she is unable to take steps to protect herself — with far-reaching consequences.

Historical fiction

There are echoes of John Fowles’ The Collector here (a book I read so long ago that my memory of it is quite vague), but for all its creepiness and, at times, morbid atmosphere, this isn’t a psychological thriller as such.

The Doll Factory is primarily a well researched historical novel, incredibly evocative and rich in detail, which brings the sights and smells of 1850s London to life on the page.

It’s very much a novel about art and pursuing dreams and having the freedom to live life as you want to live it, something that wasn’t typically open to women in the 19th century. It also explores what it was like to be a woman at the time, to constantly be in the male gaze, to modify your behaviour to keep men happy, to do things that would not call your morality into question.

It’s one of those well-crafted, entertaining novels ideal for those times when you are simply looking for something quick and absorbing to read, but because it is also underpinned by important issues and rooted in historical fact, it’s got enough meat on the bones to make it chewy, too.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, England, Fiction, Hodder, London, Publisher, Sabine Durrant, Setting

‘Finders, Keepers’ by Sabine Durrant

Fiction – Kindle edition; Hodder & Stoughton; 320 pages; 2020.

Morally dubious characters are a mainstay of Sabine Durrant’s work, and Finders, Keepers, her latest novel, is no exception.

In this gripping story — which is right out of the Patricia Highsmith playbook — two women, poles apart in background and personality, develop a strange, obsessional relationship that culminates in a murder. As the pair dance around one another, their individual secrets are revealed one by one, in a carefully paced narrative filled with many a-ha! moments.

Told from the perspective of Verity, an eccentric woman in her 50s who makes her living working from home as a lexicographer for the English Oxford Dictionary, the story juxtaposes two narrative threads: a retrospective one that looks back on how Verity became friends with her neighbour Ailsa, and a current one that focuses on Ailsa’s new life awaiting trial for murder.

Murder by poisoning

When the book opens, Ailsa is staying with Verity after having spent several nights in a cell at the local police station. Someone has daubed “YOUR GUILTEY” in red paint on the front fence. We later learn that Ailsa’s husband has died, possibly from eating poisoned food, and that she has been charged with his murder. Her three children have been taken into care.

Verity, kind-hearted and eager to please, looks after her friend with unwavering devotion, the kind of devotion she had previously doled out to her aged mother, whom she cared for until her death five years earlier. Estranged from her only sister, Verity lives alone with only her dog Maudie for company.

Verity explains that when Ailsa moved in next door — after “13 months of drills and bulldozers, the clatter of scaffolding, the whining of saws, the bangs and shouts and music and oaths of the increasingly frantic builders” — it’s a relief that the renovations are over. She already knows that Ailsa, who works in HR, and her husband, Tom, who is a record company executive, have moved to London after a failed stint in Kent. She knows their taste in furniture and fittings (having seen it all delivered).

But their friendship gets off to a wonky start when Tom comes around to complain about the trees and ivy along the back fence (wanting her to cut everything back). Later, when she’s invited over for drinks (via a handwritten invitation on the back of a postcard), she drops by, unaware that it’s a thinly veiled attempt to convince her to clear up her garden.

This sets the tone for their friendship, though Verity seems genuinely unaware that she is being used or manipulated by both parties. Even when she begins (accidentally) tutoring their son, Max, who is struggling at school because of his dyslexia, Verity can never see it in herself to chase the promised payment.

Mutually dependent friendship

As the story unfolds and the two narratives, past and present, intertwine we begin to learn more and more about the ways in which these two women come to depend on one another, and we begin to see how Tom’s behaviour, bullying and rude, might have lead to his downfall.

Finders, Keepers is a clever, suspense-filled story, one that doesn’t follow all the conventional rules of the genre. It’s far from predictable and has the kind of satisfactory ending that makes you glad you took the time to read the book.

But it’s the characters that really make the story — the bitchy, manipulative Aisla, who is all sweetness and light whenever the spotlight is cast in her direction, is rather wonderful, yet it’s Verity, an oddball with her quirky interests, that gives the novel its real heart.

Author, Book review, Colette McBeth, crime/thriller, Fiction, Headline Review, London, Publisher, Setting

‘The Life I Left Behind’ by Colette McBeth

The-life-I-left-behind

Fiction – Kindle edition; Headline; 352 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

After reading a succession of rather heavy literary novels (some of which are yet to be reviewed), I decided I needed to immerse myself in a psychological thriller — my palette cleanser of choice — which is how I came to read Colette McBeth’s The Life I Left Behind.

Trio of narrators

The story, which is set in West London (in locations I know very well), has three different narrators, who take it in turns to tell the story in alternate chapters.

The first is Melody Pieterson, a woman who survived an attempt on her life five years earlier and lived to tell the tale. But she’s now so psychologically scarred she can barely function and never leaves the house in the Surrey countryside that she shares with her fiancé, a doctor called Sam.

Then there is Eve Elliot, a freelance TV producer, who is found dead in the same heavily wooded location that Melody was discovered. She narrates her version of events from beyond the grave.

And finally there is Detective Inspector Victoria Rutter, who investigated Melody’s case, in which the attempted murderer was put behind bars. That man, David Alden, has recently been released from prison, so has he struck once again? DI Rutter isn’t quite so sure…

Twists and turns

The Life I Left Behind is full of lots of creepy twists, chilling turns and false leads. The main twist comes fairly early on when the identity of Melody’s attempted murderer is called into question. That’s because Eve had recently been researching the idea that David had been wrongly convicted — she had found new evidence which threw the guilty verdict into doubt — and had met with David on the night of her murder. What would he have to gain in killing the person who was championing his innocence?

There are lots of other minor twists as the story works towards its inevitable conclusion of revealing the identity of the real killer.

It is to the author’s credit that I failed to guess the ending. Indeed, the denouement is nicely done; it’s restrained yet satisfying, which can be quite a feat to pull off in this genre which so often resorts to over-the-top drama or ties up everything in too neat a package.

Compelling but flawed

But while the plot is compelling and original, the book does have a few flaws, not the least of which is David’s wrongful conviction, which seems slightly preposterous and not truly rooted in reality. The only way I could enjoy this story was to suspend belief and try not to worry about the fact that the police and David’s own defence counsel hadn’t done their jobs properly.

And the characters — including the trio of subsidiary male ones — while all well-drawn, are weak, shallow and manipulative. I know you don’t need to like characters to like a book, but in a psychological thriller it helps to at least empathise with the victim so you can will them to escape from the danger that threatens them. In this case, I couldn’t care less about Melody — and Eve, well, she was already dead, so what was the point?

All in all, The Life I Left Behind is a fairly average psychological thriller — although all the four- and five-star reviews on Amazon might suggest otherwise.

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, Zadie Smith

‘NW’ by Zadie Smith

Nw

Fiction – hardcover; Penguin; 295 pages; 2012.

Sometimes when I’ve finished reading a book and I express an opinion about it, I find myself completely at odds with everyone else. Zadie Smith’s NW is a case in point.

This book — Smith’s fourth novel — is widely lauded and regarded as her finest work. Everyone I follow on Twitter seems to love it. But I struggled with it and found it a chore to read — in fact, I only forced myself to finish it because it had been chosen for my book group and I wanted to be able to take part in the discussion. If I had chosen the novel of my own accord I doubt I would have continued beyond the first chapter.

Fortunately, it’s the kind of novel that actually benefits from discussion, because after my book group meeting I found myself warming to it a bit more than I had first thought, but that doesn’t mean to say I liked NW; I didn’t.

North-west London setting

The story is set in the London postcode of NW, an impoverished part north of the river, and focuses on four characters — Leah, Natalie, Felix and Nathan — who grew up on the same council estate and are now trying to make their way as 30-something adults.

It mainly revolves around Leah and Keisha, who were once best friends but now live lives that couldn’t be more different. Leah, a white Irish girl, has married an exotic-looking black French/Algerian — the kind of man all her black colleagues lust after — and is feeling the pressure of beginning a family she doesn’t yet want, probably because she  rails against the idea of bringing up a child in the same circumstances in which she was raised; while Keisha, who has reinvented herself as Natalie, is a successful black barrister with two children but finds married life so dull she has kinky sex with other couples she tracks down on the internet.

Meanwhile, Nathan, the good-looking boy Leah had a crush on at school, is living on the streets and illegally reselling tube tickets to scrape together a bit of money to feed his crack habit. Felix, the fourth character, is a bit of a red herring — he’s not known to Leah or Keisha — but his world closely orbits their’s and, eventually, collides with Nathan’s.

An experimental novel

In most of the reviews I’ve looked at online, NW has been billed as “experimental”. I guess that’s a fair way of describing the structure, which is divided into four parts. The prose style is stylistically different in each of those four parts. I found the first section “Visitation”, which is Leah’s story, so choppy and disjointed — deliberately mirroring the character’s own thought patterns — that it felt impossible to get a handle on.

Felix’s story, told in the second part, “guest”, was much easier to read, but I wasn’t sure how it was linked to the rest of the narrative, because it’s mainly set in W1. (Though Smith does tie it back right at the end, by which time it’s easy to have forgotten who Felix was.)

The most successful part, entitled “Host”, tells Keisha’s story and her changing friendship with Leah: it was easy-to-read, engaging, witty in places, sad in others, but filled with an energy and restlessness that seemed to match the personality of the character, keen to escape her black Pentecostal roots and climb the social and career ladder.

Disjointed and meandering

So why didn’t I like this book? It’s hard to pinpoint. It has some obvious strengths: the characterisation is superb and Smith expertly captures the sounds and smells and sights of this part of London (although there’s a tendency to overdo it in places). But I thought the narrative was disjointed and meandering, and each new section felt like it had been written as part of a creative writing exercise. It doesn’t seem to gel together as one cohesive whole — though perhaps that’s the point? — and it often got too bogged down in unnecessary detail.

The view of the world — or, at least, of Willesden — it presents is also unrelentingly bleak. This is a London filled with people who are cruel, mean-spirited, manipulative, violent, suspicious and unkind, where your birthplace dictates the life you must lead, with little chance to better yourself or your circumstances. As Philip Hensher points out in this review in The Telegraph, “it is angry about injustice, and overwhelmingly interested in the lost talent, the resources lost in an abandoned generation”. This adds up to a pretty damning portrait of London (and British) life, but if that was Smith’s message, then she’s undoubtedly succeeded…

So while there’s a lot to unpick in this novel — politically, socially, morally and “novelistically” —  it wasn’t really for me. You may beg to differ.

To see what other bloggers thought of it, please see the (mixed) reviews at ANZLitLovers, KevinfromCanada,  Asylum and Annabel’s House of Books.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ian McEwan, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘Amsterdam’ by Ian McEwan

amsterdam

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 198 pages; 1998.

Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam could easily have been included in my recent 10 books about journalists post. That’s because the lead character is a newspaper editor, who tries to revive a flagging career and a dive in circulation figures by publishing a series of photographs that could bring down a politician.

The novel, which won the Booker Prize in 1998, is a searing tongue-in-cheek account of journalistic ethics before the internet took over. But it’s also a terrific comedy about middle-aged men who will do almost anything to kick-start, or cling onto, stalled careers.

Though the humour is subtle, I tittered my way through it. Occasionally it’s what the characters say that elicits a chuckle, but mostly it’s the clever connections and set-ups that McEwan puts into play that deliver the laughs. It’s like a game of chess — nothing is immediately obvious, but then a character makes a move and you see what he’s up to or how it might play out before it actually does, which makes it such a fun read.

A trio of men

The story revolves around three men — the aforementioned newspaper editor, a composer and an MP — who are linked by one thing: they are ex-lovers of Molly, a photographer dead at the age of 46 from an unspecified illness. The trio are friends or enemies, depending on which way the wind is blowing.

It’s a rather complicated plot, but I’ll try to summarise it as best I can without giving anything away. Essentially, it goes something like this: Vernon Halliday, editor of The Judge, an upmarket newspaper, is handed a story that could rescue the paper’s dying circulation figures. Molly apparently took a series of photographs of a leading politician, the foreign secretary Julian Garmony, striking poses as a cross-dresser. The photos were found by composer Clive Linley.

Vernon wants to publish them, not only to boost the paper’s circulation but also to scupper Garmony’s chances of ever being elected as prime minister. Clive doesn’t approve: he thinks publishing them would betray Molly. Yet when Vernon ignores the composer’s concerns, he finds the outcome isn’t quite what he expected…

Dual storyline

There’s a second story line involving Clive, who is also struggling with his career. He’s having a hard time composing a new symphony for the new millennium — he’s missed two deadlines already — so he takes himself on a week’s holiday to the Lake District hoping to blow off the cobwebs, so to speak. While out walking he witnesses an argument between a man and a woman but at the very moment he should have interjected, he can hear a melody in his head that he doesn’t want to lose. He scuttles away to write it down before he forgets it, only to find out much later, upon his return to London, that the argument he witnessed was just the beginning of what turned out to be a rather brutal rape.

Vernon believes Clive has a moral obligation to tell the police what he saw. He refuses — again with unforeseen results.

I can’t say anything about the ending, which concludes in Amsterdam (hence the title) and brings both storylines together in a rather satisfying if completely bonkers and certainly not realistic way. I often find that with McEwan’s novels, though — his endings are strange and occasionally rushed, but I’m not sure whether this is typical of his style or just the handful of books I’ve read.

All up, Amsterdam is quite a fun read about a trio of pompous men in high-flying careers acting like they’re juveniles. It’s ingeniously plotted story with a suitably over-the-top ending that’s completely preposterous but which is not entirely out of keeping with the rest of the book. It’s a novel about journalism, politics and music, but it also explores betrayal, loyalty, ambition — and death.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, England, Fiction, Harriet Lane, London, Phoenix, Publisher, Setting

‘Alys, Always’ by Harriet Lane

Alys always

Fiction – paperback; Phoenix; 240 pages; 2012.

It’s hard to fault Harriet Lane’s psychological thriller Alys, Always, which has a perfectly paced narrative that becomes increasingly more disturbing and unsettling the further you get into the story.

It opens with Frances Thorpe, a 30-something sub-editor, driving back to London one wintry night after visiting her parents in the countryside. When she turns a bend in the road, she comes across the scene of an accident in which a car is laying on its side. The driver — the only person in the vehicle — is trapped inside.

Frances calls an ambulance and tries to comfort the woman driver whom she cannot see because it is so dark. This turns out to be the last conversation the woman ever has — she dies in hospital later that night.

What should rightly be the end of the story is really just the beginning.  The next day a police officer tells Frances that the dead woman’s family would like to get in touch.  And so that is how Frances — nervously, warily, cleverly — inveigles her way in to the lives of the Kyte family: 19-year-old Polly, mid-20s Teddy and the woman’s husband, Laurence, a literary star and Booker prize-winning author. Things are never quite the same again.

Motivations of a sub-editor

Alys, Always (the title refers to the dead woman, whose name was Alys) is narrated by Frances in a voice that is believable, vulnerable, sharp and perceptive. But there’s a dark undercurrent that makes you think twice about Frances’ motives: is she being genuine, or is she playing a game of deceit?

For as the story gallops along, Frances becomes more entwined in the Kyte’s lives, first of Polly, whom she befriends in a “big sister” kind of way, and then of Laurence, whose literary credentials offer Frances a shot at the big time herself. That’s because Frances is a downtrodden sub-editor on a struggling newspaper, The Questioner, whom no-one pays the slightest bit of attention to — “I spend my days correcting spelling mistakes and moving commas around” — until she casually mentions that she knows Laurence Kyte. Suddenly this dull, overlooked, single woman gains new-found respect from her colleagues and, especially, her editor.

It’s to the author’s credit that the story never slides into farce, because even though Laurence is a little on the clichéd side (I kept seeing him as a Martin Amis/Ian McEwan type figure, well respected by the establishment but a little bit up his own backside, if you’ll forgive my crudity), everything else feels spot-on. And I loved the little insights into the literary world, the life of a sub-editor (seeing as I’m one too) and the ways in which the newspaper business is slipping into terminal decline.

It’s that kind of detail that makes this a cut above your average run-of-the-mill psychological thriller. This isn’t so much a heart-hammering ride, but one that carefully dissects what it is to climb the social ladder and make something of yourself using guile, cunning and every little opportunity that comes your way. It’s a fun read and one that makes me want to explore more of Harriet Lane’s work: her second novel, Her, was published earlier this year.

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, London, Lucie Whitehouse, Publisher, Setting

‘Before We Met’ by Lucie Whitehouse

Before-we-met

Fiction – Kindle edition; Bloomsbury; 289 pages; 2014.

Lucie Whitehouse’s Before We Met may just be the best £1.54* I’ve spent in quite awhile. Anxious to read something fast-paced and thriller-ish to get me over a reading slump (I would pick up a book, quickly get bored or distracted, put it aside and begin the process all over again with another title), I found this novel to be the perfect foil to a series of disappointing starts.

Told in the third person, but largely from the perspective of 30-something Hannah Reilly, it has a noirish psychological feel to it, a kind of cross between Helen Fitzgerald and Nicci French. I’ve since heard it billed as a British Gone Girl, which I’m not sure is a good comparison  — that book might have been fast-paced and fun, but it was over written and had a ludicrous and unbelievable plot.

Before We Met does, occasionally, stray into the over-written territory (far too much unnecessary description and back story, for instance), but it never seems too far-fetched to be true. I read it with a  growing sense of unease and a desperate need to get to the end as quickly as possible, just to see how everything panned out.

A husband’s secrets

Set in modern day West London (and some very familiar locations, such as Hammersmith and Bishop’s Park, to this reader), it tells the story of one woman slowly realising that the man she has married – after a whirlwind romance – may not be the fine upstanding citizen and successful businessman he purports to be.

The pair of them have a happy marriage — not surprising, given they’ve only been together for eight months — but the cracks begin to appear when Mark fails to arrive home after a business trip to New York. Could the plane have crashed? Could he have missed his flight? Why isn’t he answering his phone or emails?

With Hannah’s paranoia going into overdrive, she does some digging around, only to discover that Mark’s work colleagues think he’s in Rome for a romantic weekend. She’s devastated by the prospect of him having an affair. She’s even more devastated when she realises he’s also done some “creative accounting” on her behalf.

From there, the fast-paced narrative swings from one revelation to another. All kinds of dirty secrets and blatant lies are uncovered, and the tension mounts to a nailbiting — and violent — conclusion.

Before We Met is not exactly rocket science and the characters aren’t particularly well fleshed out, but if you’re looking for a holiday read you could do worse than pack this one in your suitcase. It’s a proper page-turner, with plenty of unexpected twists and turns, and bucketloads of suspense. I gulped it down in just a couple of sittings and stayed up late into the night to finish it, something I haven’t done in a very long time.

* The price of the Kindle edition on Amazon during a recent promotion. The normal recommended price is £7.99.

Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, general, literary fiction, London, Lucy Caldwell, Northern Ireland

‘All the Beggars Riding’ by Lucy Caldwell

All-the-beggars-riding-large

Fiction – paperback; Faber & Faber; 253 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Imagine that you grow up with a father, never knowing that his long absences from the family home are not due to his job, but because he is leading a secret life in which he is married with two other children. This is the premise behind Northern Irish playwright and author Lucy Caldwell’s novel All the Beggars Riding.

The story is told from the perspective of Lara Moorhouse as an adult nearing 40. She’s coming to terms with the break down of her own long-term relationship and the impending death of her mother, and begins writing a kind of memoir about her childhood as part of the healing process. She tries to imagine what it was that her mother, a Harley Street nurse, saw in the man who wooed her but never married her — and why it was that she never confronted him about the truth of their relationship.

It’s a highly readable account, full of emotion — anger, sadness, joy, frustration and shame. Most of all it highlights the way in which one man’s hidden life has long-term repercussions on those he brazenly betrayed.

Despite the premise at its heart — a successful plastic surgeon has a “first” family in Belfast, but hides his “second” family, which comprises a mistress, a son and a daughter, in rather shabby digs in West London — it feels wholly credible throughout. Indeed the author, whom I met at a Faber preview event shortly before the book’s publication last year, told me she’d done mountains of research about men and their hidden families and what she’d discovered was shocking. The effects on the children, particularly when they discovered the truth, were what she found most disturbing.

My only quibble with the book is that the narrator constantly apologises for struggling to express herself, which wears slightly thin, but on the whole this is an engaging — and redemptive — story about family secrets and the power of love.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Faber and Faber, Fiction, London, Louise Doughty, Publisher, Setting

‘Apple Tree Yard’ by Louise Doughty

Apple-Tree-Yard

Fiction – Kindle edition; Faber and Faber; 358 pages; 2013.

Louise Doughty‘s Apple Tree Yard is a dark, smart and sexy psychological-thriller-cum-court-room-drama, full of twists, turns and unexpected shocks. It is arguably the best of the genre I’ve read this year.

Adulterous affair

Yvonne Carmichael, 52, is a highly successful geneticist who is happily married with two adult children. But one day, while attending a House of Commons Standing Committee hearing — where she is presenting evidence — she meets a man to whom she is immediately attracted.

They strike up a conversation and he takes her on a lunch-time tour of the crypt, where they end up having sex — and from this one spontaneous and illicit act the rest of Yvonne’s steady suburban life spirals out of control.

What follows is a highly charged affair in which Yvonne and her unnamed lover meet in cafes and side streets, sharing little of their lives outside of their new clandestine relationship. In fact, Yvonne is so swept up in the romance of it all that she is convinced that her lover works for British secret services — why else would he be so non-communicative about his normal life?


Unusual structure

The structure of this novel is unusual. It starts mid-way through the story arc, when Yvonne is in the dock at the Old Bailey, answering to the charge of murder. What you don’t know is who she has murdered and why, nor who her co-conspirator is.

The story backtracks to the beginning of her affair and from there the reader is kept in an almost constant state of tension. The story is exceptionally well plotted and Yvonne’s voice — one of constant disbelief that her ordinary dull and predictable life has come to this — is believable. Here’s an example of that voice — the reader is addressed as “you” throughout the entire novel:

Then, after a long while, you do something that will endear you to me
when I think about it later. You pause. You stop kissing me, withdraw
your face, and as I open my eyes I see you are looking into mine. You
still have one hand in my hair, your fingers entwined.

Fast-paced and suspenseful

Doughty is very good at moving events along quickly without compromising on detail. Indeed, London — particularly the area around Westminster and Embankment — comes alive in these pages to the point of it being an extra character in its own right.

And she’s an expert at dropping in little nuggets of information that add a new twist to the story. Yet nothing feels forced or added on; it all flows naturally and reads effortlessly.

Apple Tree Yard is a very good look at the stories we tell ourselves to justify our actions. It’s a thoroughly absorbing and intelligent read with a dark edge and bucketloads of suspense — and it’s set to be one of my favourite books of 2013.