A strong marriage can cope with the unexpected. But can it survive the unimaginable? A great thriller from the plot-twist queen
This novel follows the lives of two separate families over many years. As we start, Eleanor has arrived from America in pursuit of a romantic affair with a Londoner but she is soon alone and trying to make a way for herself in a new city. The other couple Paul and Christie are trying to settle into happy family together. The mystery around secrets they have held from each other drive the novel. We constantly switch between each persons point of view. Part way through, an unnamed voice appears. Someone is in prison for crimes they’ve committed but we do not know who or which of our protagonists is involved.
These mysteries hooked me just as much as One Step Too Far, Tina Seskis’ previous novel. She has been called the “Queen of the Plot Twist”and I found this a compelling read over one weekend. I particularly felt like we got to know Eleanor and I appreciated seeing how she changed as the decades passed.
At times I was frustrated by the pace and with Christie’s storyline, I felt we missed something with jumping forward in time. We learn later what happens in early motherhood. I would happily have spent more time with Christie at this time in her life. I understood that the twists of plot were driving us forward but I would have enjoyed knowing more about difficulties she faces from her perspective.
This novel is perfect for the rainy weekends we have been having or if you have to self-isolate (washes hands). I ignored my family for most of the weekend to finish it as soon as possible. Great for fans of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl with the British realness of Laura Pearson’s novels like Missing Pieces.
When all else fails, battle on. A bad day? A bad month? Or all merged into a steaming heap that you cannot divide up into good or bad, just a pile that’s been dumped right on top of you. Then you battle on.
The battle pales into insignificance to other wars being fought elsewhere, I know that, but still, here in my life, this is a fight. A fight for my son and his needs to be heard. A fight too for keeping my head above water, juggling my responsibilities with the extra workload of paperwork. And of course it’s not just the actual paperwork but the emotional load of it all.
I learnt back in November when we were going through the EHCP draft stage that the emotional toll took a lot out of me. The process should be over by now but they have not listened so we are waiting to mediate. Up and down the country families are going through this stage or taking the Local Authority to court. And why? There is not enough money nor enough places to meet the needs of our children. There’s a full on #SENDcrisis. Meanwhile newspapers are reporting that schools are taking “your” children’s funding to plug the gap. This discriminatory writing where we are set up them vs. us is so toxic and the fight feels so much bigger than just our family.
All of this does not make a great creative space. Knowing how tough the end of last year was, I have been more prepared to take it easy on myself. Instead I have been escaping to baths and books. And some read some amazing writing this month.
The Confessions of Frannie Langton is such a brilliant novel. Recounting the tale of the end of slavery and the pseudo-science of eugenics, the full horrors that Frannie experiences unravel through the tale she tells. We learn how she ends up in prison, her life in the hands of a system always going to beat her down. It is a compelling novel and I loved that we really get to hear her voice.
Inspired by the prison setting, I started Alias Grace this weekend. Another fascinating novel that reads too as a murder mystery. So far I am loving it. Shame my son just took my bookmark out!
Obviously there are many ways in we can distract ourselves from our real life problems. But for me, a book will always be the best place to escape.
I have read less this month so far. I know why, I have had a resurgence of my obsession with the Real Housewives franchises. I laugh at my husband a lot because he enjoys watching Coronation Street. He doesn’t just let him wash over him, as I do with a lot of TV. He does this thing where when I go and watch casually over dinner, he stops and starts the recording to tell me what’s going on. I find it infuriating! We can never sit down together til late and I worry I will quickly run out of my precious evening. As a result, I have been ignoring his soaps and putting Housewives on my laptop.
He also laughs at my tv taste, don’t worry! Whether I am in Cheshire, New York or Beverley Hills I get hooked on the drama, at this point I have “known” some of the women for nearly a decade. Apart from asking what I have been doing with my life when I realise this, I have also been thinking how all this unscripted drama can help my writing too. (In no way trying to justify this to myself)
1.Gatherings are good How many parties do these people have? In recent days I have been thinking about a scene where there is a dinner party that goes wrong. Well no-one seems to be able to have a dinner party in the Housewives lives without getting up and shouting at their friend across the way. Or, I don’t know, letting their dog drink out of the crystal glass.
Gathering people face to face works very well is the visual media. Confrontation is direct across a table. But also can lead to spiky conversations. Dinner parties and drawing rooms are classic settings for drama in fiction too. Even if Miss Bingley’s insults sound more classy.
“Miss Eliza Bennet,” said Miss Bingley, “despises cards. She is a great reader, and has no pleasure in anything else.”
” I deserve neither such praise nor such censure,” cried Elizabeth; “I am not a great reader, and I have pleasure in many things.”
2. Confrontationis crucial It’s almost as if the producers know to record the dramatic conversations because I don’t think the drama is that heated between friends usually. There may be upsets in real life, but what these women do so well is use lots of direct speech. They talk behind each others backs of course, but at some point they have to come head to head with the person they have fallen out with. This leads to people speaking directly. At each point that we come back to the characters in the Housewives or in fiction, we are seeing a crucial snapshot. Any speech we write also has to be direct, a sound bite almost.
3.Master Manipulation There is always somebody who gets accused of being a master of manipulation. I am not saying which side of Puppygate I really stand on, but if you watched season five of RHOBH, you know that LVP has been accused of manipulating the media before. For the purposes of novel writing, I am finding more that the author has to be the manipulator. Certainly if you want to surprise or confound your reader, drip feeding relevant back story, holding out on details it’s all a game of manipulation. And there certainly seems to be experts in this field to watch on the Housewives.
4. All Femaleis OK It’s interesting to think that amongst all the female-on-female aggression shown on these shows, they are at the heart vehicles for empowerment. For example they do often discuss other things than their love lives and would probably pass the Bechdel Test many times in an episode. Most of them have some sort of business. The longest serving Housewives are figures like Bethenny Frankel and Dawn Ward, powerful business women and these seem to be characters we are most drawn to. It’s a wonder then that fiction seems to still want to put love stories so central, when other parts of women’s lives can be so interesting.
5. Escapism is Essential I love the Housewives for all the reasons you are supposed to, I love being nosey about the houses, the clothes, the swanky holidays. It’s a sheer escape. At times I gawp at the price tags, but it’s so far removed my reality, I forget to care their housewarming gifts cost the same as my month’s rent. I think if it’s important to remember anything from the fluff, it’s that most of us read to escape reality. Even if you are writing a dark, gritty thriller or a sharp political commentary, there is a place we go away from ourselves when we read.
If you love some posh escapism , then you’ll like these suggestions too:
I am forever on the hunt for novels where the main character runs away from their life. In recent years there was a surge of novels such as Gone Girl or the somewhat bizarre Where’d You Go Bernadette? I think it’s a fascinating idea that you could escape life, it sometimes appeals anyway! But really I wonder if in reality, life would catch up with you? This is an idea I have been exploring in my own writing. With this in mind, when I read the blurb for The Borrower I picked it up immediately from the library.
Lucy Hull is working in a small-town library in Hannibal Missouri after graduation. It seems she wants to escape the influence of her family. She forms a friendship with precocious reader Ian, a boy who comes alone or barely supervised to the children’s library. She soon starts to help him smuggle books out of the library because his mother would not approve. The friendship comes to a head one day when she finds him camped out in the library. Somehow her worries about him and his mother overtake any common sense and she helps him run away.
I had a little jolt of pleasure a few chapters in when we learn Lucy graduated from Mount Holyoke. I was lucky enough to study for a year abroad there in 2004 and it is a very special place. Her drive to help Ian, her idealism and activism may seem out of place in the Missouri portrayed in the novel, but would fit right in on campus. . And of course where else would you go if you were in love with libraries.
Aside from my own personal connection to the novel, a passion for libraries is central to this novel and really it is a book for all book-lovers. Particularly children’s book lovers. Her writing is peppered throughout with tropes from children’s literature and she cleverly weaves in the books with italicised passages aping the style of various children’s tales. I really enjoyed the Choose Your Own Adventure chapter.
There were so many books that were mentioned or seemed to be forming the narrative. Makkai plays cleverly with ideas from many Dahl novels. It’s hard to know which reference is more pleasurable to recognise in the story. Maybe, Lucy’s father’s story of USSR Chocolate Factory, complete with espionage?
At the beginning of the novel, she is reading the book Matilda to the children and in many ways this novel writes back to Dahl’s masterpiece. The older I get reading Matilda it always seemed odd that within minutes the Wormwoods agree to Miss Honey’s adoption of her. Perhaps it’s because I worked in Children’s Services. The telekinesis I can cope with, but adoption being that easy? The reality of the impact of interfering with the child’s life, even though we are on Lucy’s side, are that it cannot be her role, she cannot really be Miss Honey.
Characters are brilliantly drawn. The build up to the road trip part of the novel we are drawn to Lucy and Ian. Then when it is just the two of them, the book is both comical and touching. You are rooting for both of them in the end, and compelled to read on to find out if Lucy will be arrested for kidnapping him. The pace of the novel really picks up for the sequence where they are on the road making this the most enjoyable part, I felt.
It seems a hopeful novel. And in a time when we are fighting library cuts, an important one too. Everyone who can believe in the power of books to change lives, you are going to like this book.