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‘The Hidden Room’ by Stella Duffy ***

Stella Duffy is a prolific author, but before picking up her newest novel, The Hidden Room, I had shamefully never read any of her work.  She goes back to her roots, so to speak, with this title, returning to the genre of psychological thrillers after twelve years.

The Hidden Room has been wonderfully reviewed.  Crime writer Val McDermid writes: ‘Nobody turns the screw of tension tighter… 9780349007878[it] left me gasping’, and Alex Marwood adds: ‘Duffy roars back into crime writing with her trademark intensity.  The Hidden Room is spooky, atmospheric and as psychologically on point as it could be.  If you want to be disturbed, read this book.’

The novel follows a married couple named Laurie and Martha, who should, by all accounts, be incredibly happy.  They have three healthy teenage children, and live in an enormous house, a finished renovation project which they undertook together, in the middle of the Lincolnshire countryside.  After Laurie’s architectural career takes off, ‘Martha had become the prime carer by default, which had never been the plan, and had almost grown into a problem – until Martha had something else to occupy her thoughts, someone else.  Someone to think about when she was increasingly the only parent picking the kids up from a late practice or date, the only parent around to enforce Sunday-night homework.  Someone to make her feel a bit sixteen again, and a lot less thirty-nine.  A lot less almost forty.’

The novel’s opening paragraph sets up the creepiness and tension almost immediately:

‘Laurie lived in a community when she was a child.
Some people called that community a cult, and she was taken away when she was nine years old.
She didn’t stay in touch with anyone from there.
She never went back.
Nothing remains from that time in her life.

Laurie keeps secrets.’

Throughout, Duffy introduces a series of flashbacks which relate to Laurie’s early life, and the cult which she belonged to.  When still a child, she was ‘covenanted’ to a boy two years older than her.  After the ceremony, they ‘led the community in their dance that night.  They led stumbling, unsure, it was difficult to make the steps with their hands crossed and bound to each other, but they led anyway.  Exactly as Abraham often explained, they led because the others followed – he had dreamed the community into being, and it was a community only because they all surrendered to the dream.  The dream and the promise, all tied together in a long, thin strip of tired red cotton.’

When Laurie is alone in the house, she finds a small crawlspace in the attic, which she soon begins to refer to as her ‘hidden room’; it is ‘narrow, wide enough for a single bed with a very little space to move alongside, and just over six feet long.  It was definitively a part of the house, and it had once been a room, the bookcase had been nailed and drilled into place against what had been a door frame.’   She tells nobody about it, and when her past comes back to haunt her, it is to this space that she retreats: ‘So when she found the little room behind the bookcase she saw it as a gift.  She didn’t think Martha would have minded if she’d said she wanted a space, for her work, or even just to think.  But it wasn’t only a room that Laurie wanted, she wanted a secret, something of her own.’

Both the present and past stories which Duffy builds in The Hidden Room are engaging, and her often breathy prose sets the pace marvellously.  Whilst the novel was nowhere near as taut, nor as tense, as I was expecting, and whilst I did guess the twists, I found the novel compelling nonetheless.  Some elements were predictable, and others strange, but overall, the balance which Duffy has struck here works well.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Girl on the Train’ by Paula Hawkins ****

Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on The Train is a number one bestseller, which has been incredibly well reviewed.  S.J. Watson, author of the incredibly clever Before I Go To Sleep, calls it ‘a top-notch thriller and a compulsive read’, and Stephen King says that it kept him up for ‘most of the night’. 9780857522313

The premise of The Girl on the Train is both simple and clever; Rachel Watson, our protagonist, ‘catches the same commuter train every morning.’  Each time, a signal stops it in exactly the same place, allowing her a view of a row of suburban back gardens.  One morning, ‘she sees something shocking.  It’s only a minute until the train moves on, but it’s enough.  Now everything’s changed.  Now Rachel has the chance to become a part of the lives she’s only watched from afar…  She’s much more than just the girl on the train’.

The book’s opening passage – a prologue of sorts – is so intriguing, and definitely makes one want to read on: ‘She’s buried beneath a silver bitch tree, down towards the old train tracks, her grave marked with a cairn…  I didn’t want to draw attention to her resting place, but I couldn’t leave her without remembrance.  She’ll sleep peacefully there, no one to disturb her, no sounds but birdsong and the rumble of passing trains’.

Rachel’s is the first perspective which is made use of, with the starting point of July 2013.  Of her daily journey, she tells us: ‘Twice a day, I am offered a view into other lives, just for a moment.  There’s something comforting about the sight of strangers safe at home’.  We learn, rather early on, that the street which the train stops at is Blenheim Road – the place in which she used to live, in her first self-owned home with her ex-husband, Tom.  There, she was both ‘blissfully happy and utterly wretched’.  It is clear from the outset that Rachel is troubled; an untold event seems to be overshadowing everything for her, and she has turned to alcohol to seek solace.  She is a complex narrator; whilst she is lonely and, some would say, untrustworthy, there is a feisty side to her which beats its way to the fore when it is warranted: ‘Who was it said that following your heart is a good thing?  It is pure egotism, a selfishness to conquer all.  Hatred floods me.  If I saw that woman now… I would spit in her face.  I would scratch her eyes out’.

Some of the events which Rachel participates in are obscured by her alcoholism, so the story often appears fragmented.  This is an intelligent plot device, and one which piques the interest of the reader: ‘It comes over me like a wave, black dread.  Something happened, I know it did.  I can’t picture it, but I can feel it…  I’m frightened, but I’m not sure what I’m afraid of, which just exacerbates the fear’.  She then goes on to candidly say, ‘I feel like I am part of this mystery.  I’m connected.  I am no longer just a girl on the train, going back and forth without point or purpose’.

The rest of the book uses the alternating perspectives of Rachel, Megan and Anna, whose paths intersect at times.  Their voices are all relatively distinctive.  The differing vantage points and times in which these narrative voices are set add depth to the whole, and allow Hawkins to tell a story within a story within a story.  The pivotal plot points come at perfect moments, and the pieces cleverly slot into place as the novel goes on.  The mysteries deepen, and complexities give the whole a wonderfully layered texture.  Hawkins’ structure is effective; a relatively short entry is given for each day, morning and evening, for each of the perspectives.

The Girl on The Train is Hawkins’ first thriller; this is surprising, in many ways, as it feels as though she is incredibly comfortable writing within the genre.  There is nothing about the novel which does not strike one as polished and well crafted.  The Girl on The Train is gripping and difficult to put down.  If you are looking for a fast-paced thriller with depth, look no further.

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Flash Reviews: ‘Ox Crimes’, ‘Black Eyed Susans’, and ‘Vinegar Girl’

Time for three more mini reviews!

Ox Crimes by Various Authors *** 9781781250648
I purchased Ox Crimes whilst seeking out my Scorching Summer Reads pile because it sounded wonderful. I love the idea behind it; twenty seven crime writers donating a story apiece to Oxfam. As with the majority of anthologies, there were a few stories which didn’t really interest me – the more hardboiled detective ones in this case – but on a high note, I have also (finally) discovered Stella Duffy.

I very much enjoyed how quirky a lot of these stories were; there were unusual elements to them for the most part, and not one could be termed run-of-the-mill. A mixed bag of crime stories, let’s face it, but literature for a good cause is always worth buying.

 

9781405921275Black Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin ***
I have been trying to read more thrillers of late, and Black Eyed Susans has undoubtedly been hyped. Whilst travelling to my early morning lectures, I must have seen a dozen posters with that eye-catching field of flowers, featuring the slightly ambiguous naked woman, dotted around the underground.

My thoughts about the novel are a mixed bag, as I had a feeling they might be. The storyline is intriguing; it has elements of the general thriller, but there are a few twists to it in places that I wasn’t quite expecting. Heaberlin’s writing didn’t blow me away, but the pacing was strong. The merging of past and present stories worked well, but the tenses were undoubtedly confused at times (and I say this as a proofreader). Black Eyed Susans felt, to me, rather drawn out in places, and whilst it kept me entertained, I don’t think I’d rush to pick up another of Heaberlin’s novels.

 

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler * 9781781090190
This had so much potential. WHY WAS IT SO DULL!?

I love Shakespeare. I love The Taming of the Shrew. I love the Hogarth Shakespeare series. I greatly admire what the authors have done. I had hoped that this would suck me in as Jeannette Winterson’s book did, but alas. There are nowhere near enough echoes of the original here; if you were not aware that this was a rewriting of Shakespeare, I’m not entirely sure you’d be able to guess.

I’ve not had the best experience with Anne Tyler’s novels in the past; I have begun three, and abandoned three. I think I’m going to give her up as a bad job. Thoroughly disappointing, and hopefully not a precursor of the rest of the series!

 

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‘The Girl on The Train’ by Paula Hawkins ****

Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on The Train is a number one bestseller, which has been incredibly well reviewed.  S.J. Watson, author of the incredibly clever Before I Go To Sleep, calls it ‘a top-notch thriller and a compulsive read’, and Stephen King says that it kept him up for ‘most of the night’.

The premise of The Girl on the Train is both simple and clever; Rachel Watson, our protagonist, ‘catches the same commuter train every morning.’  Each time, a signal stops it in exactly the same place, allowing her a view of a row of suburban back gardens.  One morning, ‘she sees something shocking.  It’s only a minute until the train moves on, but it’s enough.  Now everything’s changed.  Now Rachel has the chance to become a part of the lives she’s only watched from afar…  She’s much more than just the girl on the train’.

The book’s opening passage – a prologue of sorts – is so intriguing, and definitely makes one want to read on: ‘She’s buried beneath a silver bitch tree, down towards the old train tracks, her grave marked with a cairn…  I didn’t want to draw attention to her resting place, but I couldn’t leave her without remembrance.  She’ll sleep peacefully there, no one to disturb her, no sounds but birdsong and the rumble of passing trains’.

Rachel’s is the first perspective which is made use of, with the starting point of July 2013.  Of her daily journey, she tells us: ‘Twice a day, I am offered a view into other lives, just for a moment.  There’s something comforting about the sight of strangers safe at home’.  We learn, rather early on, that the street which the train stops at is Blenheim Road – the place in which she used to live, in her first self-owned home with her ex-husband, Tom.  There, she was both ‘blissfully happy and utterly wretched’.  It is clear from the outset that Rachel is troubled; an untold event seems to be overshadowing everything for her, and she has turned to alcohol to seek solace.  She is a complex narrator; whilst she is lonely and, some would say, untrustworthy, there is a feisty side to her which beats its way to the fore when it is warranted: ‘Who was it said that following your heart is a good thing?  It is pure egotism, a selfishness to conquer all.  Hatred floods me.  If I saw that woman now… I would spit in her face.  I would scratch her eyes out’.

Some of the events which Rachel participates in are obscured by her alcoholism, so the story often appears fragmented.  This is an intelligent plot device, and one which piques the interest of the reader: ‘It comes over me like a wave, black dread.  Something happened, I know it did.  I can’t picture it, but I can feel it…  I’m frightened, but I’m not sure what I’m afraid of, which just exacerbates the fear’.  She then goes on to candidly say, ‘I feel like I am part of this mystery.  I’m connected.  I am no longer just a girl on the train, going back and forth without point or purpose’.

The rest of the book uses the alternating perspectives of Rachel, Megan and Anna, whose paths intersect at times.  Their voices are all relatively distinctive.  The differing vantage points and times in which these narrative voices are set add depth to the whole, and allow Hawkins to tell a story within a story within a story.  The pivotal plot points come at perfect moments, and the pieces cleverly slot into place as the novel goes on.  The mysteries deepen, and complexities give the whole a wonderfully layered texture.  Hawkins’ structure is effective; a relatively short entry is given for each day, morning and evening, for each of the perspectives.

The Girl on The Train is Hawkins’ first thriller; this is surprising, in many ways, as it feels as though she is incredibly comfortable writing within the genre.  There is nothing about the novel which does not strike one as polished and well crafted.  The Girl on The Train is gripping and difficult to put down.  If you are looking for a fast-paced thriller with depth, look no further.

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