Written by Linda Huber — Debut author Linda Hubert is originally from Glasgow – a city which has proved a fertile killing ground for a wide range of best-selling crime authors. However, she ignores her birthplace as the setting for The Paradise Trees opting instead for the fictional Yorkshire village of Lower Banford as the backdrop.
It is a quiet, tranquil and unhurried spot, nestling between the river Ban and a wooded hillside. Banford is a place where everyone knows everyone else and the most exciting thing that ever happens is when the village shop gets a delivery. But appearances can be deceptive, as Alicia Bryson knows only too well.
We meet Alicia as she is driving to Lower Banford from her home in Bedford with her eight-year-old daughter Jenny. Alicia left without a backward glance at the age of 16, fleeing a bullying father who was obsessed with religion and who made her life a misery. Now the man who terrorised her early years has dementia and is suffering the after effects of a couple of strokes, and Alicia feels duty bound to help her aunt look after him, hence the summer visit.
Jenny is excited about visiting her grandfather and great aunt, but Alicia is torn. And the flashbacks she is getting from her childhood aren’t helping to settle her nerves. In her head, she hears a child’s voice warning her about the ‘bad place’ and her dreams are filled with images of a child being locked in a darkened room, and… what? Alicia isn’t sure what happened next, but the fragments she can remember leave her feeling unsettled.
This book tells its story from two viewpoints – the third-person account of Alicia’s story, and a first-person narrative by a shadowy figure introduced to us only as The Stranger. He’s a creepy fellow whose back story is revealed in stages, but even at first acquaintance you know he’s up to no good. His Helen has gone to Paradise, and when he learns about the arrival of Alicia and Jenny to the village, he thinks it would be a good idea to send them there too, to keep his beloved Helen company. Who he is and how he sets about achieving his goal is the mystery that holds the story together and we are led up many a garden path before learning his identity.
Alicia’s chequered social life offers some light relief from the darkness – could any of her new friends be – gasp – the Stranger himself?
Overall, The Paradise Trees is an unsettling read, particularly when seen through the eyes of The Stranger. His obsession with young Jenny left me feeling extremely uncomfortable. It is a tad too graphic for my taste and I was tempted to speed read through those passages. The characters are a little formulaic – such as the busybody running the village shop, vulnerable doctor mourning his dead wife, and creepy owner of the local pet shop. And I was surprised that Alicia, portrayed as an overprotective single mother, allows her beloved daughter go out alone into the woods. Surely that’s just looking for trouble?
I look forward to reading more of Linda Huber’s work. This is a laudable debut which will appeal to lovers of psychological thrillers.
The Paradise Trees is released 1 September.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars