In The Poison Tree (2008), her haunting debut psychological thriller, Erin Kelly came on like a 21st century Barbara Vine. As you read the final chilling paragraph of her new novel, you’ll know that you have just read a book by a writer, any possible influences cast aside, writing at the top of her game.
Present day: Laura and Kit live in the 24-hour bustle of north London where, even in the most light polluted city in Britain, at least at four in the morning, it is still possible to see Venus with the naked eye, along with a crescent moon wearing “the pale blue planet like an ear-ring.” Laura is pregnant with twins; Kit, a lifelong addict to the phenomenon of the total eclipse, is about to depart, alone this time, for its latest manifestation, from a viewpoint on the Faroe Islands. Their mutual devotion is evident.
But paranoia reigns. “There is anonymity in bustle” remarks Laura. Both she and Kit live off the grid, under the radar, and have agreed on leaving no paper trail. Laura lives with sleepless nights and panic attacks. Both live in fear of a contact from either of two names from the past: Beth and Jamie.
Perhaps I should go back and qualify that word “chilling”. Female readers will almost certainly react in a different way. For this is a book that takes violence, particularly male sexual violence and its far-reaching emotional consequences, as its theme.
Laura has confronted the brutal reality of such violence when, fifteen years before in Cornwall, attending her first eclipse with Kit, she accidentally discovers what she immediately identifies as a rape in progress. Supported by Kit in the subsequent trial, she appears as a witness for Beth, the subject of the attack .Conflicting testimony emerges but, against the considerable odds, justice appears to have been done. Or has it? Back in the present day, distrust and paranoia continues to mount.
This is an enthralling novel, unputdownable in the best sense. Told mainly from Laura’s point of view (with occasional crucial interventions from Kit) and across four key periods of intertwining time, the book is a marvel of construction, lending both emotional logic to the plot, as well as increasing the steadily mounting tension. In the first third of the novel its socio/political points (the class, gender and media bias that surrounds the subject of rape) are shrewdly made. In the remainder, the ebb and flow of Laura’s relationships with both Kit and Beth shows all of Kelly’s customary skill.
Wonderfully well written throughout, Kelly’s gifts for conveying atmosphere are evident from the off, and not only across a variety of eclipse locations. Both Laura and Kit (not to mention Beth; I have some reservations about the less nuanced Jamie) are portrayed with thrilling complexity. And that final chapter is both touching (Albie, Laura and Kit’s four month-old son has learned already that “we are meant to look up”) and devastating (that final revelation).
One that stays in the memory. Don’t miss.
He Said/She Said is published by Hodder & Stoughton 9781444797152 (hb) 9781444797169 (pb) 9781444797176 (ebook)