You don’t get a more dramatic start to a crime novel than the discovery of six bodies, hanging side by side in the conservatory of a fairly run-of-the-mill Buckinghamshire family home. And they are a family, three generations of the Bryants to be precise. Was it a mass suicide, or murder?
The horrific scene is discovered by 18-year-old Ellen and her friend Jack, who is 20. He is Jack Bryant, the last remaining member of a family that Ellen always thought of as perfect… Thus English crime author Sarah Sheridan sets the scene for a story with treachery, control and deception at its very heart.
A naive late teenager brought up by her hardworking mother, Ellen firmly believed the Bryants were the family she had always longed for. Attractive and affluent, they welcomed her into the fold with open arms. Over the years she became firm friends with Sabrina, the eldest daughter, and found herself secretly falling in love with Jack.
These days, Jack lives with Ellen. He is a writer and has left the family home because he needs space to work on his novel (although Ellen has never seen any evidence of him actually doing any writing… odd). It’s all very platonic but she can always dream, can’t she? Now her beloved Jack is in pieces, broken by the deaths of his nearest and dearest and Ellen steps into the breach, offering him comfort in his time of need and secretly hoping that the tragedy may finally bring them closer together.
Perhaps she should be careful what she wishes for because all the warning signs are there, if she would only look. Ellen’s mum tries to offer advice to her daughter but the headstrong teen isn’t inclined to listen. She is young and in love and she knows that Jack needs her. Or does he? At last, the scales fall from Ellen’s eyes and she slowly begins to build up a true picture of the Bryant family. Her picture of the perfect family she so idolised begins to waver and then disintegrate. There is so much she has to learn, and none of it shows the Bryants in a good light.
Although it opens with a shocking scene, Sarah Sheridan unfolds the narrative of A Perfect Family with a light touch. Ellen is such a young innocent, much as she tries to portray herself as someone who is harder and tougher. And Jack? Well Jack is a bit off from the get-go – and that’s putting it mildly. At some point you’ll turn into Ellen’s mum and be silently begging her to take care. But teenagers eh? When have they ever been prepared to listen to reason?
The drama builds oh-so-slowly and characterisations are somewhat perfunctory and one-dimensional as we follow Ellen’s journey out of rose-coloured romance and into hard, shocking reality, yelling warnings to her every step of the way. For a seemingly intelligent young woman, she isn’t inclined to use her common sense and unsurprisingly that gets Ellen into all manner of difficulties.
A Perfect Family has a plot that seems sketched rather than set in stone, and the choice of such a young protagonist lends it an air of the Young Adult novel rather than a slice of full-blown grown up crime fiction. This is not a book destined to worm its way into your memory bank, but it is entertaining enough. It would make ideal poolside reading, as long as you keep your thoughts about Ellen in check and don’t yell out in frustration — the other sun worshippers need their beauty sleep!
Also see 13 Minutes by Sarah Pinborough.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars