Written by Sophie Hannah — When I read Sophie Hannah’s first novel, Little Face, I was shocked and amazed. It was as though the author had rummaged around in the deepest, darkest recesses of my mind, and unearthed all the items I try to keep well-hidden, even from myself. Ever since, I have been addicted to her twisted tales and almost impossible puzzles. Her books may bring a sense of disquiet and discomfort, but they are also about recognisable darker currents to which we may all fall prey.
Her latest novel starts with a premise familiar to all frequent travellers: a flight delay in Germany, irate passengers, an enforced overnight stay at a grimy hotel. Gaby Struthers, an elegant and highly-intelligent businesswoman, finds herself forced to share a room, much to her dismay, with Lauren, a fellow Brit who seems to be the opposite of everything that Gaby herself stands for. Semi-literate, unable to control her emotions, proudly displaying her tattoos and visibly in thrall to her much-older husband, Lauren nevertheless has something in common with Gaby. Both women know Tim Breary.
Tim was the love of Gaby’s life, even though he would not leave his sulky, manipulative wife for her. This is the very wife who suffered a severe stroke a short while later, whom he helped to nurse in her incurable vegetative state and whom he now confesses to having suffocated with a pillow. Was it a mercy killing? An act of revenge? Or a conspiracy worthy of Murder on the Orient Express? Tim offers no plausible explanation for his deed, and Gaby is determined to prove his innocence, forcing her way into the police investigation.
Sophie Hannah is the queen of intricate plotting, tying the reader in such knots that they have no choice but to read at great speed in order to extricate themselves from her tangled web. This time the conclusion was a little less satisfying, perhaps because I failed to sympathise with any of the characters. I could pity them, but not really like them. Nevertheless, this was a chilling portrayal of victimhood, bullying and passive-aggressive submission. I have never cared too much for the side plot in Sophie Hannah’s novels – the private lives of the dysfunctional little trio of misunderstood genius DC Simon Waterhouse, his more down-to-earth wife and fellow cop Charlie Zailer, and their sarcastic boss Inspector Proust. However this time it mirrors the main story very neatly, and even adds extra psychological depth. Why do people put up with intolerable situations for so long? Is it fear, forgiveness, weakness of simply indecisive laziness? I know people who react as if they were characters in a Sophie Hannah novel, albeit without the extreme consequences.
It is also a pleasure to finally see the author’s love of poetry shine through in her novel. Poetry is not often associated with crime fiction, except perhaps sinister poems that show the state of mind of serial killers. What we have here, however, is poetry giving voice to emotionally-stunted people without any words of their own.
For someone new to Sophie Hannah, this book is not the best starting point. I would suggest reading them at least roughly in order. For a fan like me, it may not feel like her best novel, but it is still a notch above many other psychological thrillers.
You can read our interview with Sophie Hannah, for World Book Night 2013, here.
Hodder & Stoughton
CFL Rating: 4 Stars