Tuesday 19 November 2019

Book review: The Heat of Betrayal - A couple's troubled journey to the heart of darkness

Page turner: Douglas Kennedy manages to maintain a gripping pace. Photo: David Conachy
Page turner: Douglas Kennedy manages to maintain a gripping pace. Photo: David Conachy
Book cover: The Heat of Betrayal

Liadan Hynes

Paul and Robin have been married three years when we first come across them. They met under unpromising circumstances - artist Paul's abysmal financial affairs forced him to avail of Robin's professional accountancy services.

Instead of being put off by his careless attitude to life, so different to her own highly-organised ways, she is charmed, reflecting - somewhat childishly - that she had always wanted to fall in love with an artist.

He reminds her of her beloved father, another charmer, full of promise but completely unreliable.

While she describes it as still a new marriage, cracks are already beginning to show. They're passionately in love but Paul continues to spend with abandon. After the last spree Robin refused to bail him out as she had in the past, and left for a few days to stay with a friend.

She's now forty, and desperate to get pregnant, but so far, their attempts have come to nothing. Paul's artistic career has not fulfilled its promising beginnings, and he is suffering a lack of confidence.

When he suggests an impromptu trip Morocco, she at first demurs, but quickly agrees. Her latent longing to break out of her self-imposed practical, serious life does not seem to have been satiated by marriage to Paul. For both husband and wife, the holiday seems to promise a further opportunity to escape the humdrum, realities of everyday life and their own short comings.

Paul first lived in Morocco in his youth, and is no doubt keen to recapture the sense of promise he once enjoyed before he lost faith in his own abilities. In accepting his suggestion, Robin is indulging her fantasies of herself as a more carefree type.

Their motives are somewhat facile, a flaw that could be levelled at the two main characters throughout. It can at times seem as if they are more in love with the idea of love than in possession of any meaningful knowledge of each other.

Their exchanges are at times in danger of becoming a shade nauseating; "your powers of observation are formidable", "not as formidable as your culinary skills," goes one such conversation.

On arrival in Morocco we are immediately aware of an undercurrent, a hint that all is not quite right - when Paul turns to Robin, still on the plane, and asks "is this all a mistake?" Later, as he nervously waits at Customs, wondering aloud whether he will be admitted, and again when Robin takes an ill-advised lone stroll from their hotel at night and is set upon.

However they quickly settle into a satisfying routine - Paul producing good work, Robin immersing herself in French lessons. But after two weeks, the idyll is shattered. Paul's carelessness with his personal affairs leads to Robin learning of an unforgivable personal betrayal.

This novel is being sold as a page turner and Kennedy does undoubtedly maintain the pace throughout; enjoyable for the reader but also necessary at times when the characters behave implausibly. On this occasion, Robin's reaction to Paul's betrayal might seem slightly out of character, but it is essential to the plot, inspiring Paul's next move.

He goes missing, and she embarks on a desperate hunt to track down her unravelling husband. The holiday of a lifetime soon becomes a nightmare. Along the way she has plenty of opportunity to rely on the kindness of strangers, but is also exposed to terrifying brutality.

At times it is hard to feel invested in the two main characters. It's not that they're dislikeable, just occasionally annoying.

Robin's uptight-accountant -meets-author manqué, which leaves her susceptible to Paul's at times frustratingly romantic sensibilities, leaves you wanting to shake her, and her sometimes fawning tone when referring to her husband is irritating. But the unravelling of the plot is gripping, and the location and huge cast of colourful support characters so well described that this is a minor point. In the end, Robin's quest becomes more than a search for her husband. It is a search for love, and an exploration of whether it is possible to escape one's past.

Ultimately this is Robin's search to get to a place of safety, a phrase used by a kind pastor she meets along the way. Until now her life has veered between the rigidity of the self-professed control freak, and the chaotic abandonment of marrying Paul. Neither has offered her safety. But being forced to truly confront herself, her own fears and insecurities, may in the end do just that.

The Heat of  Betrayal

Douglas Kennedy

Hutchinson, €16.99

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