Written by Laura Marshall — This seems to be the year of the misbehaving teenager. Ruth Ware’s The Lying Game focuses on a group of boarding schoolgirls, now adults, who must face up to the repercussions of a bad deed done long ago; now debut author Marshall ploughs a similar furrow.
Where the two books differ, however, is in Marshall’s nifty use of social media. The technology becomes almost like a character – a decidedly shady one – in the story, much in the vein of 13 Minutes, by Sarah Pinborough. That was a book I loved when it was published last year.
Louise Williams is a single mother, running her own interior design business from home in London and splitting her days between work and caring for her four-year-old son, Henry. She’s an occasional Facebook user and thinks nothing of it when she receives a friend request notification. Then she notices the name of her friend-to-be. It’s an old school friend Maria Weston… but Maria died 25 years ago!
The more we learn about Laura, the deeper in the doo doo she appears to be. From early doors it’s hinted that she had something to do with the death of the dear departed Maria, but it’s a long, long time before you are given the whole, sordid story.
In the meantime Laura is taunted by knowing messages from her new online friend which, coming hand-in-hand with a forthcoming school reunion in the sleepy town in Norfolk where Maria met her doom, sends our central character into a tizzy. It seems she has no one to turn to, nobody with whom she can share the story of her guilt. No-one except, that is, for her ex-husband Sam. He knows everything because he was a member of the gang of friends, back in the day. They share custody of Henry, but it appears the pair have little else in common, so Laura is left jittery and alone with her fears and feelings of guilt. It’s all going to end badly, isn’t it?
The claustrophobic, desolate feeling of being a teenager and desperately trying to fit in is recreated in all its horror by an author who shows great promise. Friend Request was shortlisted for both the Lucy Cavendish Award and the Bath Novel Award in 2016 and I can understand why the judges rated it so highly. However, it proves hard to sympathise with Laura when you think hard about her situation. She’s an independent woman who runs her own business and who surely could have just shut down her Facebook account and walked away, ignored the reunion invitation and spent time instead with the adorable Henry, who is my favourite character of all, alongside much-put-upon teenager Maria Weston. I also disliked the vacuous Sophie Hannigan, the girl Laura so wanted to be friends with back in the day.
The bright lights of London and the small town insecurities of the fictional Sharne Bay are well drawn and create a fine contrast in a book which takes a while to get into its stride. The timeline shifts back and forth as we gradually learn what really happened at the Sharne Bay High School leavers party back in the late 1980s, the twin plotlines interspersed with occasional chapters containing musings from an unknown source.
This is a solid debut that has arrived just in time for summer holiday reading and would serve as a perfect companion as you lounge on your sunbed. However, unlike The Lying Game, 13 Minutes or even The Final Girls, its not a book likely to stay in the mind for very long.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars