Monday, December 22, 2008
When a journalist contacts Faith Severn in the interest of writing a book about the execution of her aunt Vera Hillyard, Faith slowly reveals and unravels the story of the Hillyard family complete in it's complicities and claustrophobias. After her parents' death, Vera leaves her young son and military husband in the care of others and undertakes the role of mother to her younger sister, Eden. Vera and Eden's relationship is extremely close and secretive, often excluding all other parties. Living in virtual isolation during World War II, Vera makes Eden her top priority and constant concern, and becomes a profoundly obsessive and controlling woman. It's here that Faith spends many vacations and holidays, enduring Vera's casual cruelty and myriad insecurities while secretly idolizing the young and beautiful Eden. As time moves on and Faith grows older, she witnesses multiple changes in Vera and Eden's relationship, the return of Vera's son, Francis (a merciless young man), and Eden's eventual flight from the nest. Even so, things are not what they seem in the Hillyard house, and the family secrets will eventually spark an explosive, painful conclusion that leaves the reader sorting through the myriad clues to find a definitive answer to this intensely satisfying psychological thriller. Is Vera's madness really self-induced, or does it come from a more sinister direction? What are the circumstances behind her execution, and what part does her family truly play?
This was a fascinating and, eventually, quite devastating book. The author has a way of laying out the story and prose in a quietly thorough way, keeping the more disquieting elements couched within the normal everyday attributes of a wartime family. Knowing that a murder had occurred but not knowing the circumstances surrounding it, nor even who the victim was, was a particularly interesting way to tell this story. The technique had me reading with trepidation to discover where the cracks would appear, and how the murder would eventually take place. The story has an aura of foreboding attached to it, it was ominous from it's skeleton to it's details, haunting in a wonderful way. Because Vera was not a particularly pshycopathic person, the murder behind her execution seemed all the more interesting. Yes, she was restrictive and cold, and it was very clear that she was also repressed and secretive, at times she could be embarrassingly hysterical, but her character also seemed to be very controlled and conscious of propriety and modulated. Reading along I became convinced that this murder was an act of desperation and madness, instead of an act of calculated cruelty.
In fact, all the characters in this book were exquisitely portrayed. From the obnoxious and perverse Francis to the furtive and beautiful Eden and the reluctant and inquisitive Faith, each character was finely detailed and and exceptionally rendered. It felt like I knew these people, knew how they would react, where their buttons were and could see what would push them. There was a tremendous amount of exposition given over to these characters, a lot of time spent on the mundane and everyday, but it was far from boring. In fact it was a very illuminating and clever way to get the reader invested in the drama of the storyline, and the eventual destruction of a family.
The story dealt with many sensitive issues, and without giving away the mysteries of the story, it would be hard to touch on and identify them all, but the one that stuck out was the repression and emotional constraint of those in England during that time. It was evident in Vera's entire character, in her sister Eden's choice of lifestyle, and eventually in Faith's reticence to tell the story of her aunt. Repression ran like a thick vein down this haunting and dark story.
Another thing that I liked about this story were the atmospheric touches. There was much discussion of war time rationing and the procurement of luxurys items, such as food and cosmetics, during the lean times of war. I thought this was an interesting touch that gave the story believability and flavor. It seemed that the author accounted for all the variables in this time period and those minute touches really amplified the credibility of the story.
The conclusion of the story was also handled brilliantly. It skipped the exposition and definition and instead recounted and laid bare all the facts for the reader to deduce the motives and culpability of this murder. By doing this, it refrained from passing judgment on the killer and let the reader see that there was more to the story than just the black and white of the slaying. As in some real-life murders, the details were murky, the facts sometimes cloudy. One could almost discount Vera's madness and responsibility, could see from the facts alone that she was vindicated. Almost. And in the end, that is what this story came down to. The confusion and reaction of a somewhat normal woman, spurred into to a hideous act that forever changed the landscape of her family's life.
If you can't tell by now, I thought this book was superb. It had an intensity and control that I truly appreciated. I loved the meandering way that the story was fleshed out, and felt that in this way the suspense was built into an almost unbearable measure. I had heard so many good things about this book, and was so excited to read it. In no way did it disappoint. Though it is written by a mystery writer, this book is more of a psychological suspense story. A very intelligent and thought provoking read. Strongly recommended.