Day of the Accident

3 Mins read

Written by Nuala Ellwood — You may have been looking forward to picking up this second book by Nuala Ellwood, following her debut thriller, My Sister’s Bones. This deftly explored the themes of civil war and domestic violence through the lens of a damaged war reporter with PTSD, who returns home from covering the conflict in Syria. It made my Top Five Books for 2017list and Ellwood was named one of the Observer’s New Faces of Fiction 2017.

In the first novel, reporter Kate is tipped over the edge by the death of a child she befriended in Syria and there are flashbacks to this trauma and her own abusive childhood. This was an accomplished and fresh look at PTSD and domestic abuse with a character to root for and plenty of twists.

I couldn’t wait for the next one, when Day of the Accident was due to be published a year ago and then put off until September and again postponed until now.

In the prologue of this standalone, Maggie is in the dock of Lewes Crown Court making her plea to a manslaughter charge, while plagued with flashbacks to her young daughter Elspeth. We plunge back five weeks to the moment Maggie wakes from a coma to be told that her daughter Elspeth is dead. She drowned when the car Maggie had been driving ended up in the river with Elspeth trapped inside, because, she is told, Maggie failed to apply the handbrake, although she remembers nothing of this.

When Maggie  wakes up she begs to see her husband Sean, but the police tell her that he has disappeared. He was last seen on the day of her daughter’s funeral. She still can’t quite believe that Elspeth is dead and the memory loss about what happened at the riverbank is driving her mad. She can’t shake the suspicion that somewhere, somehow Elspeth is out there, needing her. 

Maggie’s amnesia forces her to rely on the sketchy details of what happened that evening when she put 10-year-old Elspeth in the car to meet a man she hasn’t seen for 30 years who invited her to a pub by the riverbank by text. Her bank account has seemingly been cleaned out by her missing husband, who has obviously abandoned her and worse, Sean sold the large house she believed they owned and she’s taken to seedy emergency accommodation with only £200 in funds.

Maggie’s story is told in tandem with that of an anonymous young girl in a care home who writes to her mother to beg her to collect her and take her home. 

So far, so intriguing, however it seems a stretch that Maggie walks around the town and sees it as a stranger (okay she’s had memory loss), but surely more of her former friends and acquaintances would recognise her. One of the few is the hostile and vindictive Barbara, who does everything she can to destroy Maggie’s life all over again, hissing at her in the street and accusing her of killing her child.

It is explained that Maggie can’t contact anyone she used to know to help her find Sean because she lost her phone in the accident. Surely her phone provider could access her call history? She has memories outside of that night, too of her parents, her marriage and happier occasions with her beloved Elspeth. There are other anomalies, like appearing to give a plea at the crown court just five weeks after she wakes up – if only the courts were that quick to serve justice.

Secrets and lies stack up and Maggie herself is hiding many truths from herself and us. Like Kate in the first book, this traumatised character is put through the ringer, but unlike Kate you may find it hard to empathise with her mental torment. There isn’t enough on the surface to like about her really, although I wanted to feel her grief and join her journey to the truth. There are slow reveals as Maggie does her best to protect herself from her complex and dark past. For example, she spent time in psychiatric care after attempting to take her own life as a teenager.

Finally there is a rushing waterfall of exposition in the denouement that comes crashing to a sticky and implausible end, whilst several key questions remain unanswered.

As novels featuring children dying in car accidents go, I Let You Goby Clare Mackintosh is hard to beat.


CFL Rating: 3 Stars

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