Tuesday 16 October 2018

Thrilling author loves playing Blame game

Fiction: The Blamed, Emily Hourican, Hachette Book Ireland, €15.99

An intoxicating summer of drugs, desire and darkness haunts the pages of this taut, addictive novel by Emily Hourican. Photo: David Conachy
An intoxicating summer of drugs, desire and darkness haunts the pages of this taut, addictive novel by Emily Hourican. Photo: David Conachy

Sophie White

The Blamed opens on a sun-bleached foreign beach where Anna, a strained mother-of-two, is dealing with bloodshed in the form of a toddler mishap and a teen daughter who's become a stranger to her. This juxtaposition of home and abroad, the familiar, tinged with unease, is a constant in this third novel of bestselling author, Emily Hourican. The seemingly idyllic family holiday scene stained in blood is a clever foreshadowing of much that follows in Hourican's tense and well-plotted literary thriller.

Three scenarios play out over the next 300 pages and culminate in a denouement that, while anticipated to some extent - Hourican expertly breadcrumbs the impending violence and despair - still manages to deliver a cold, sharp shock to the system. Now follows 40-year-old Anna through a familiar day-to-day of family, friends and client meetings but look closer and the comfortable middle-class life is polluted with malevolent forces.

Anna's barely contained simmering rage, her daughter Jessie's eating disorder, her lonely marriage to the detached Maurice and the spectre of her dead childhood best friend, the Other Jessie.

Then takes us back to the heady summer Anna spent in Brussels, aged 25. The "summer I came into my powers. Like a witch," writes Hourican who conjures a world both enticing and suffocating.

The circle Anna is adopted by are eccentric strays, hedonistic and spoiled. Their lives are largely nocturnal and drenched in booze and oppressive heat. The druggie nights, sense of isolation and obsessive love have echos of a cult, Anna notes.

Into this insular world comes the first Jessie, Anna's best friend on a visit from Ireland and the dread, palpable from the off, gathers pace, driving us towards a terrible conclusion. Jessie, the final thread of the story is that of young Jessie, Anna's daughter conceived during that summer in Brussels and named for Anna's lost friend - apt given Jessie too is lost, to her illness.

Jessie appears possessed by her anorexia, the illness almost an entity separate from the anguished girl. It stole into her body like a foreign infection, cleaving Jessie away from her safe and mundane teenage days and cracking the powerful bond that Jessie and Anna had formed after so many years of only having each other.

The line-up of who can be considered at fault in this story - as the title The Blamed suggests - only expands as the story rushes forward. The conclusions one draws are simply that nothing can ever be erased, boxed off or buried, the past lies within us festering until we are willing to confront it. Addressing her daughter in the final pages, Anna says: "Birth was terrible and tearing, and I was glad, because I wanted to rip apart the two bits of my life so they would not touch, so that the place with you in it would be ours alone."

Of course, this past has crept back in.

It penetrates the glossy life Anna has built in the form of a toxic hunger that starves and devours her daughter. It is the ghost of a deceased friend - or is she foe? - an object of obsession for her young namesake, Jessie who, as her illness progresses, drifts further into a delusional state. And perhaps the most potent and unavoidable manifestation of this inescapable past lies in the unquenchable rage inside Anna herself, a rage that will not be buried.

Hourican gives fine portraits of every flawed and contemptible player in this dread-filled page turner. In her characters, she offers us stark reflections of ourselves; our friendships; our frustrated desires; our destructive envy; and our anger.

The worlds she draws also reflect our own. Anna's hedonistic summer drags us back to our own carefree days, though a more accurate descriptor would probably be careless days. The Blamed throws light into those murkier corners of our past when our lives brushed up against some terrible calamity and only by the grace of fate or accident nothing worse happened. The chaotic confusion and anger of motherhood delivers a similar shudder of recognition and the walled-off, unreachable Jessie will surely trigger every parent of a teenager. Through Anna's guilt-ridden recollections, Hourican captures the primal rage we unhappily uncover in ourselves during the draining days of early parenthood. "Her daughter's face was there, too. Jessie as a tiny baby, a toddler, scared, uncomprehending in the face of Anna's anger. Jessie, crying or pleading: 'I'm sorry, Anna, I'll stop. I didn't mean to'. Jessie's fists, small and desperate, hammering on the bathroom door as she begged to be let in while Anna sat as tight as she could, silent, trying to breathe her way out of the state she was in."

Hourican's writing is like the deft knife work of a skilled chef, each line is precise, the meaning filleted out - meaty and raw.

"The very cunning of the disease astonished Anna," she writes of Jessie's anorexia. "The way it could comfort those it afflicted with the sleek sheen of superiority, even while it destroyed them."

In its fearless examination of the motivations and mores of young girls, The Blamed channels recent favourites like Emma Cline's The Girls and Louise O'Neill's Asking For It. It is part psychological thriller, part literary family drama, part sun-soaked nostalgic noir and a must-read for this summer.

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