They’re probably best known as authors of the best selling Frieda Klein series but Nicci Gerrard and Sean French also create some gripping and original standalone works too. The Unheard is the latest in a list that includes the likes of House of Correction and The Lying Room, both reviewed on this site.
There’s always that psychological thriller element in the Nicci French books, and The Unheard is no exception. Tess is a single mother living in London with her three-year-old daughter, Poppy. She and the child’s father have separated, although they have a friendly enough relationship in which little Poppy is the glue that still binds them.
But that is all about to change on one fateful day when Poppy comes home from nursery clutching her usual array of colourful drawings, mainly of mummy and Sunny, their beloved cat. As Tess idly leafs through the latest batch of masterpieces she is brought up short — in among all the rainbow scrawls is a very different drawing. It is in stark black and white and depicts what looks like a tower and a wild haired woman falling from it.
When she gently quizzes her daughter – is it Rapunzel? An angel? A fairy? Poppy’s reply is chilling. “He did kill her,” she says. “He did kill and kill and kill.” The incident is followed by Poppy suddenly not sleeping well, wetting the bed, and loudly shouting swear words in anger. Where has the sweet little girl gone – and what has triggered this dramatic change in her?
Watch in horror as doting earth mother Tess turns into a raging out of control lioness. She is convinced that Poppy witnessed something dreadful. When she learns that a young local woman recently fell to her death from a tall building, she puts two and two together and comes up with a ridiculous theory that Poppy was somehow involved. But it is really ridiculous? When the local paper publishes a photograph of the dead woman, Tess realises she knows her. It’s the strange woman who came and accosted her and her boyfriend recently when they were out for a romantic dinner together.
Tess starts bombarding the police with theories, and her scattergun approach of suspecting everyone she knows starts to alienate her from the people she thought she knew. Her paranoia deepens and she goes off half-cocked and without any rhyme or reason for her suspicions.
The Unheard is a densely written novel, its protagonist pretty hard to like and her growing near-madness difficult to empathise with. When Tess’s motherly love tips over into such a maelstrom of emotions it probably best to take time time out, stand back and breathe deeply before continuing your read – as I found myself doing on numerous occasions, muttering under my breath at what I’d just witnessed on the page. This is not a book that pulls in the reader like a welcoming hug; instead, there’s a sensation of being on the outside, looking in and not liking what you’re seeing.
Tess reminded me of Rachel in The Girl on the Train – someone you wanted to grab by the shoulders and give a bloody good talking to. But, like Rachel, perhaps there is something to her paranoia after all? The Nicci French team may make heavy work of this one, but ultimately, they still manage to surprise and shock.
Nevertheless, this standalone won’t be added to my list of favourite reads of 2021 and Tess certainly isn’t on my Christmas card list, but thankfully there are enough pluses in there to keep psychological thriller fans interested to the final page.
Read our micro interview for insight into the writing of Nicci French.
Simon & Schuster
CFL Rating: 3 Stars