This is the book that I’ve been waiting for Sophie Hannah to write: an intricate, complex, impossible mystery that seems unsolvable and yet has an utterly logical solution, free from the encumberances of a series
At least, it’s nearly that book. It was intriguing, it was compelling, but it wasn’t quite as perfect as it might have been – as it needed to be to really work.
The set-up is brilliant:
A family is moving, out of London to a big house set deep in Devon, in the Dart valley. Justine has given up a high-powered media job, and she wants to cut all of her ties with that life. Because her husband, Alex, is a successful opera singer she can do that; and her daughter, Ellen, can be enrolled in an exclusive private school with an excellent reputation.
While the car is moving slowly through congested streets, a suburban house catches Justine’s attention, and she knows that – for reasons she doesn’t quite understand – it will be important to her. When she explains why she seems distracted, her husband and daughter tease her. She changes the subject, but she doesn’t forget.
At first it seems that the move has been a great success, but it isn’t long before there are complications.
Justine receives threatening anonymous telephone calls. When a name is mentioned, Justine protests that she isn’t that person, that she has no idea who she is. But the caller insists that she is, and every fact that she mention correlates with the facts of her life.
And then Ellen is disturbed when her friend George is expelled from school. She believes that to be unjust, and when she explains why her mother agrees. Justine approaches the school, but she is told that there never was a George, and that there has never been an expulsion. But the way she is told, the way she is handled, make her quite sure that her daughter is right and that the school has something to hide.
She links the school situation and her anonymous calls, and she sets out to find out what is going on. It was classic Sophie Hannah, without the dull detectives, of the Culver Valley, and there was more. There was something else that really elevated this book.
Ellen had a writing project for school. Justine picked up the first few pages, and she found that it was a murder mystery set in their new house. It didn’t feel like Ellen’s work – not the content, not the style, not the strange names – but she insisted that it was, and she refused to explain or to share any more of her work.
That became a story within a story. And with a touch of the gothic, and a dash of black humour, I have to say that it was a more engaging and more thought-provoking story than Justine’s.
I had to keep turning the pages, because the book was so well written, the puzzle was so fascinating, and the characters – though not likeable – were intriguing. I needed answers, I needed to know what was fact and what was fiction, and I needed to work out who – if anyone – was reliable.
There were some answers as the story progressed, but there were more questions.
This is the kind of book where you need to trust the author and accept some things that see ridiculously improbable. I can – and I love the complex puzzle and the twisted logic – but I can understand why many can’t and don’t. I think that Sophie Hannah’s books engage the logical part of my brain that makes me an accountant as well as the part that makes me a reader, and without those two part working together I doubt that the books would work for me.
One character – in Ellen’s story – said that the clues were there. They were, and I spotted some of them.
And another character – in Justine’s story – said, after something happened, that it made them realise that they would never have answers to some of their questions. I felt like that too, and it was a problem.
Ellen’s story was wrapped up very cleverly, but the deouement of Justine’s felt messy. It was compelling, it was clever, many questions were answered, but not all of them, and I was left a little disappointed.
It also made me look back and realise that there had been unnecessary details and complications in Justine’s story; it wasn’t as well executed as her daughter’s writing assignment.
I loved my journey through this book, I found much too love, but this time the puzzle was just a little too twisted to be satisfactorily solved.
But I do hope that Sophie Hannah write more stand-alone books, because there is no one else quite like her, and I know that when she gets it just right the results will be truly exceptional.