Joanna Briscoe

Published by Hammer (Random House) 3 July 2014

238pp, hardback, £9.99

Reviewed by Alison Coles

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Unsettling is the word that came to mind as I read Joanna Briscoe’s half-page first chapter –  a glimpse of a sinister figure remembered from childhood.  Unsettling returned tenfold at the end of this surreal, ephemeral, 1960s-set novel as it closed with the words Je Reviens – both a dark promise and a memory of the perfume that haunts every page.

Briscoe has created an exquisite web of doubt, of unexplained happenings, of insinuation of darkness while on the surface everything might appear wonderful, light, ideal.  Through the novel she toys with the idea of what is real and what is imagined, with what malevolence and fear lie beneath the surface of everyday life.

Joanna Briscoe’s early years were spent in Letchmore Heath in Hertfordshire – ‘the village of the damned’ as she calls it – and it is this surburban landscape that she uses to create the rural Crowsley Beck, ‘a shimmering, archetypal village’, the place where Rowena Crale believes life will be perfect.  On this canvas, the author paints in the fears and events both disturbing and supernatural that haunted her own childhood.  Why did people in the village spurn Mr Pollard, why was Mrs Pollard so protective of all the local children she seemed to coral in their rambling house? Why did no one know what went on in their outbuildings? Why did Rowena lose track of where her daughters Eva and Jennifer were?  Why did the rather simple Eva seem to channel her grandmother? Why did Rowena’s home, taken wrongly from her husband’s mother, leak and moan and haunt with the grandmother’s perfume? Why is there a hidden room with no windows and no obvious entrance? Boarded up, it smells of old food, disinfectant and death…

Rowena is out of control. She struggles with reality. She is terrified and unhappy.  She has too many children. She is sexy and turns to the reassurance that new sex and passion bring.The character of Rowena draws out the sympathy of every woman who has felt herself drowning in a sea of smiling faces.  It is only in the final chapter that the events come to a head. Having lived in the atmosphere of the book for over two hundred pages, the unexpected is expected, but I was not prepared for the final revelation.

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