Jane Baxter and Marnie Gregory, two young women heading for their thirties, have been inseparable friends since they were 11, having met on the first day of secondary school. They sat at adjoining desks and were almost glued together from then on.
They are, in the most comprehensive meaning of the term, 'besties', sharing every aspect of their experiences and emotions. Even when they go to different universities after school, they call, text and FaceTime each other every day, and share a flat in south London as they began to make their way in life.
Best pals they may be, but they couldn't be more different in looks, personality or approach to life. Marnie is elegantly tall, blonde and outgoing, a rising star in the blogging universe, where her cookery video posts have attracted thousands of followers and commercial interest. Jane, dark-haired, rather plain and desperately anxious, works in a pretty dead-end job, rising to be the head of a retailer's telephone complaints department. As Jane says, "she is light where I am dark".
But then, against all the odds, Jane meets the man of her dreams. She leaves Marnie's flat and moves in with Jonathan, her handsome cameraman lover. After a whirlwind romance, they get married and are blissfully happy until an out-of-control London taxi cab mows him down and kills him, narrowly missing her in the process.
Naturally, Jane is devastated, but there is even more personal tragedy looming. Her cold and disapproving mother, who had made it clear all through Jane's life that she much preferred her younger sister Emma, is descending into dementia in a care home. Emma, who has always been bulimic, is heading towards terminal anorexia. Jane leans on Marnie more and more.
But Marnie soon finds herself madly in love. Charles is wealthy, successful and utterly charming. But Jane loathes him, as she says herself "in an all-encompassing, burning, biblical way". She is convinced Charles just sees Marnie as the ultimate prize, a beautiful, sparkling final trophy in his collection. Charles seems to know what she feels about him, and cruelly teases her at every opportunity. When the gilded couple decide to marry, Marnie, seeking Jane's approval, says: "You think we are right for each other, don't you?" Jane bites her tongue and responds: "Yes, I do."
This first lie, on the surface seemingly inconsequential, is the first step in an escalating web of deceit that Jane constructs in an effort to maintain the close bond she has always enjoyed with her best friend for almost all her life. It is to have devastating consequences. If she hadn't told it, she admits: "Charles would still be alive."
As the lies multiply, a young, eager-to-make-her-mark local newspaper journalist starts stalking Jane, and, when she eventually publishes a sensationalist and speculative story, the two young women's bond seems to be strengthened. But astonishing news for Marnie once again threatens Jane's need for the singularity of Marnie's love for her, with potentially tragic consequences for both.
This gripping and very scary tale of obsessive love is a tour de force. The story unfolds as if Jane is addressing someone directly, having a lengthy conversation, with all the digressions and asides one would expect in direct speech. It is a clever plot device, because it never becomes clear whom Jane is talking too, and as her explanation of the course of the friendship is charted, it becomes clear that, whatever the denouement may be, it is going to be cataclysmic. Top marks to Elizabeth Kay for such a stunning debut.