Saturday 24 September 2016

Books: Superb storytelling and sly misdirections in a slow-burn mystery

Fiction: Keep You Close, Lucie Whitehouse, Bloomsbury Circus, hdbk, 368 pages

Janette Wolf

Published 10/04/2016 | 02:30

Desire: Whitehouse explores the compelling pull of others people’s families.
Desire: Whitehouse explores the compelling pull of others people’s families.
Keep You Close

Gracing the cover of Lucie Whitehouse's Keep You Close is a lit match. Nothing remarkable there, but it sets the tone for what follows: a slow, slow burn of a story.

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Marianne Glass is a talented young artist on the cusp of international greatness when she throws herself from the upstairs window of the family home in Oxford. Her distraught family are left baffled. She was happy, wasn't she?

Well, no, as it happens and it is now up to her best friend, PhD student Rowan, to prove foul play where the police see only suicide. Rowan's task is made all the more difficult because she and Marianne fell out some 10 years previously.

After Marianne's funeral, Rowan returns to the Glass family home in Fyfield Road for the first time in a decade and it becomes clear that the real object of her devotion was Jacqueline, Marianne's beautiful, intelligent and loving mother.

Rowan's motherlessness is at the heart of this story (hers died when she was six months old). The compelling pull of other people's families is not a new device. Brideshead Revisited is possibly the grandest example and, more latterly, Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty is another. Rowan, whose father works abroad, finds in Fyfield Road all the emotional sustenance and vitality so lacking in her own life.

As narrator, she switches back and forth between this rose-tinted nostalgia for Oxford and the bleaker, paranoid now, and acquires an unwelcome ally in her sleuthing in the shape of Michael Cory, a famous artist who was working on a portrait of Marianne.

Like Rowan, Michael dismisses police explanations of suicide and believes that the key to understanding what happened might lie in the death of Marianne's handsome and philandering father Seb, 10 years before.

Rowan tiptoes round memories of Seb and has evidently not forgiven him for cheating on the hallowed Jacqueline. Whereas the rest of the family stoically shrugged off his infidelities, Rowan regarded them in more apocalyptic terms: "He was gambling all their happiness, jeopardising everything".

At this point, there is a whumpf, as Whitehouse's carefully constructed tinder ignites spectacularly.

Whitehouse is a superb storyteller, whose sleight of hand and sly misdirections have you leaping to all the wrong conclusions from the outset.

We do not know who can be trusted, least of all the increasingly volatile Rowan.

The twist, and it would appear that no psych thriller is now complete without one, is right up there. Rowan's PhD subject, incidentally, is Guy Fawkes. Kaboom!

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