Written by Erin Kelly — The Poison Tree was a remarkable debut, a very English psychological suspense novel about an outsider enchanted by glamorous new friends. It was adapted for television in the UK and Erin Kelly showed an equally sure touch with her next novel, The Sick Rose (entitled The Dark Rose in the US).
Kelly may have moved on from horticulture-inspired titles though she’s still writing intoxicating novels about damaged suburbanites in exile and the psychological fault lines within families. However, the controlled claustrophobia of her previous books has been replaced with multiple perspectives and a relentless narrative drive that makes her early crime writing feel almost quiet and considered.
The Burning Air has you in its grip from the opening diary entry by a terminally ill magistrate, the wife of a head teacher at a prestigious school. It’s known by its diminutive ‘The Cath’ for families given its educational embrace, and is situated in a fictional English Cathedral town called Saxby. Lydia MacBride’s confession may be too sketchy to shock us just yet but it emerges that her actions had devastating consequences. Her secret diaries are a key element in a novel that recalls Ruth Rendell’s more extreme psychological crime writing as Barbara Vine.
Within a few pages, the narrative shifts forward nine months to a MacBride family gathering in a sprawling house in a Devon valley (never very reliable for mobile phone reception) for their traditional Bonfire Night celebrations. The atmosphere is a combustible mixture of grief for Lydia, joy at Sophie MacBride’s baby daughter and uncertainty about her fractured marriage. Just as Lydia was not as principled as she seemed so appearances prove deceptive for other family members. An uncontrollable outburst reveals Sophie’s not the perfect mother; the late Lydia’s husband Rowan gets inexplicably drunk on port; and their son Felix (an underachiever with a disfiguring injury) has brought a mystery woman who, he confides to his sister, is way out of his league.
It’s no great spoiler to reveal that The Burning Air hinges on the abduction of a baby. “A girl you only just met has vanished, and she’s taken your baby,” screams the book’s cover. Yet this is a tale of revenge, not a police procedural, and the real clue to the direction of the story is the quote at the beginning from An Inspector Calls. Just as Priestley’s play delves into the responsibility of a prosperous family for the suicide of a young woman, so Kelly probes the middle-class MacBrides’ culpability in the downfall of a family on the fringes of respectability in Saxby.
As in her previous novels, Kelly plunges the reader back in time to expose the motives feeding the poisonous obsession that characterises the second part of the book. In the mid-Nineties we meet Darcy, who’s being home-schooled and half-starved by an anorexic, agoraphobic mother with an apparent fondness for Jane Austen. This pushy parent’s desperate need to get her only child into The Cath leads to a confrontation between Darcy and Rowan that sets a destructive chain of events in motion.
Kelly’s genius is to take the MacBride family we’ve got to know and then despoil that image of middle-class certainty through the eyes of Darcy. We soon learn more about that life-changing injury sustained by Felix as well as the fateful justice dispensed, almost casually, by his mother. The passage of 15 years is finessed by Kelly so that her story never loses its intensity – we glimpse some serious Facebook stalking and a terrifying scene involving steaming hot hair straighteners – although it’s perhaps not always as believable as her quieter novels.
Nevertheless, I gasped at one revelation when it crept up on me and the narrative accounts of Sophie, Darcy and Rowan collide to create a shocking denouement. The Burning Air is a riveting psychological thriller about a family struggling for survival that poses plenty of moral questions and is deliciously cunning with the clues it leaves in plain sight.
Read an interview with the author here.
Hodder & Stoughton
CFL Rating: 5 Stars