The London-based author Dreda Say Mitchell has written a whole selection of gangster novels with strong female leads, but with Spare Room she’s venturing into new territory, the psychological thriller. From the very beginning she’ll have you wrong footed and turning or swiping pages constantly, wondering what the next twist will be.
Just going by the title and the first few chapters, it seems like Spare Room is going to be a creepy story about how landlord Jack and landlady Martha psychologically torture their new boarder, Lisa. After all, they’ve got her to sign a wonky lease that includes all sorts of rules to trip her up. Jack tries it on with Lisa just a day or two after she’s moved in, instantly dialling up the tension with Martha. A mouse injured in a trap appears under Lisa’s bed, and weirdo Jack bludgeons it to death. Later events involve a swarm of flies coming down the chimney, and a cat. Also, don’t drink the water. It’s all a bit landlords from Hell, and might remind you of The Magpies by Mark Edwards.
All the while, we’re getting to know Lisa. She’s a plain-ish young woman, fragile in a lot of ways, but very determined too. She’s only had one boyfriend – Alex – and found it hard to connect with him for various reasons. Her parents are prim, proper and emotionally unavailable. But the main thing is that she’s troubled. She has nightmares so terrible she has to tie her leg to the bedpost to avoid running around the house screaming. There are old scars all over her limbs and on her stomach, and she doesn’t know how they got there.
The question is: why does she stay in Jack and Martha’s horrible Victorian townhouse? Why doesn’t she just break one of their rules, get thrown out and find somewhere else in London? It seems she is the immovable object standing in the way of their irresistible force. As a reader, you’ll be scratching your head and thinking the author has created the most improbable of scenarios.
But you’d be wrong, and halfway through Spare Room, Dreda Say Mitchell reveals one or two of her cards. Lisa is there for a reason. It’s a big and exciting twist, and the focus shifts from just how evil Jack and Martha can be to the secrets of Lisa’s past. The house, which has a mason’s mark depicting a key on the front, means something to Lisa but she’s not sure what.
Perhaps a letter she found stuffed down the back of the bedside table is a clue. It seems to be a suicide note. And what about the cyrillic writing she finds when she peels back some of the wallpaper? Maybe Alex can help, after all he has Russian roots. Lisa becomes convinced that her parents are hiding something from her, and even starts to think her psychiatrist is part of the plot. Is she paranoid, or is she being played? Pretty soon, she starts to unravel. Properly unravel.
Spare Room is a fast-paced book, cleverly plotted and never dull. It’s by no means heavy reading as Lisa carries out her personal investigation. Yes, the writer cuts corners here and there to keep things moving, and one or two things near the end don’t ring true at all. But for a pound or two on your Kindle, this is a gripping and exciting book with a female protagonist who won’t give up, no matter what life throws at her.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars