Thanks to NetGalley and to HQ for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.
This is an unsettling novel. It starts with a woman, Rachel, who wakes up after a New Year’s Eve party not remembering what has happened and feeling quite vulnerable, and as she tries to get her bearings and find out what went on, while keeping face (as she’s in one of her neighbours’ houses and feels more than a little embarrassed), she comes to realise that something horrible has taken place. The author’s use of first-person narration immerses the readers in Rachel’s mind and makes us share in her fear, confusion, and contradictory feelings. There is physical evidence that something has happened to her, but she cannot recall what, or who might have done the deed.
The story moves between the immediate aftermath of the story, in chronological order, and interspersed chapters that share the events prior to the party, always from the protagonist’s point of view, but they don’t reach into the faraway past and only takes us a few months back, giving us some background that helps us understand why the people closest to Rachel (especially her husband, Gareth) react as they do to the events.
In the present time, somebody starts playing with the protagonist, in a game of cat-and-mouse (which sometimes takes on gaslighting characteristics) and manages to make her doubt herself and everybody around her, from mere acquaintances to those closest and dearest to her. The first-person point of view works well at making readers feel the claustrophobia, paranoia, anxiety, and sheer terror of not knowing who to trust and seeing your whole life crumble around you.
The book, which fits into the domestic noir category, uses well some of the tropes of the genre, including the protagonist who feels trapped and not taken seriously by the police and therefore has to do her own investigating. There are also plenty of red herrings and a number of credible suspects that make us keep turning the pages to see what will happen next, although readers of thrillers will probably guess who the culprit is (I did).
On the negative side, personally, I did not feel a connection to the characters, particularly Rachel. I empathised with her circumstances, and with the terrible crime she has survived, but I did not feel there is enough information provided about her to create a credible individual. One of the other characters at some point talks about her belief that she is a strong woman, and I wondered what that was based on, as we are only given snippets of her current life and her recent past, and nothing that makes her come alive (What does she like? What did she do before she got married? Does she have any passions, apart from her relationships? She has a friend but other than calling her for support, there is no indication of what that friendship is based on). She does things that are morally questionable, but that was not my issue (I have long defended unlikable main characters, but I still need to feel that they are real, somehow). I wondered if this was intentional, trying to make sure that everybody would be able to identify with Rachel and her plight, rather than making her too distinctive and individual, but, for me at least, the opposite is the truth, and we know enough about her to make her different from us, but not perhaps to make us feel as if we know who she is. This would not bother me so much in a standard plot-driven thriller, but when the book depends so closely on the protagonist’s voice and on her sense of identity, it didn’t gel for me. There were also some things that I thought readers who are not fond of first-person narratives might find annoying (like the character looking at herself in the mirror as a way of providing us a description, something that is frown upon in general writing advice, and a leaning towards telling rather than showing in the bulk of the writing).
The novel moves at a good pace, it creates doubt and hesitation in the readers’ minds, and it has a good sense of timing. And the ending will probably satisfy most fans of the genre. It also touches on an important and, sadly, topical subject, although it does not cover new ground. It brought to my mind C.L.Taylor’s The Fear and I noticed the author, Lisa Hall, had reviewed that novel. I have not read the author’s previous books, but I am curious to see how this compares to her other novels.
A page-turner I recommend to lovers of domestic noir, particularly those who enjoy claustrophobic and unsettling first-person narratives.