Monday, July 9, 2012

Little Face by Sophie Hannah — 320 pgs

When Alice Fancourt returns home from her first solo outing after her daughter’s birth, what she finds makes her hair stand on end. While her husband David has been napping, someone has stolen her newborn daughter and replaced her with another. Hardly daring to believe it herself, when Alice confronts David, he believes her to be mad and tries to unsuccessfully convince her that the child now lying in the cradle is indeed their daughter Florence. But as tension mounts and the police are called in, the real truth about David and Alice’s relationship and their singular and joint relationships with David’s mother, Vivianne, comes into sharp focus. It seems that the wealthy Vivianne has not only infantilized and controlled David and, more shockingly, Alice, but that David has a hidden side that is only revealed when his daughter goes missing. When detective Simon Waterhouse is called to the scene to investigate, he naturally doesn’t believe a word Alice is saying. But for some reason, he is drawn to her and her strange story, and agrees to step out of the bounds of police formalities and take an interest in Alice’s strange case. Detective Waterhouse is struggling with personal issues of his own, and due to his anger management problems, he is intrinsically linked to his superior officer, the crude and cynical Charlie. But there’s a secret between Waterhouse and Charlie too, and as the investigation into the missing child’s case grinds forward, this secret may have damning effects on not only Waterhouse’s psyche but the way in which the kidnapping of little Florence is handled and resolved. Both hauntingly wicked and strangely plausible, Little Face tells the story of a woman who is in over her head in every respect possible, and the detective that decides to take an unusual risk to come to her aid.

This book was a selection for The Books, Babes and Bordeaux book club, and while I had little knowledge of this book beforehand, I was eager to read it after hearing the brief summary on the jacket of the book. It was an odd tale from the beginning, and as the book rocked forward, it became almost like a surreal and strange nightmare from which I couldn’t seem to disentangle myself. Though ostensibly this was a book about a kidnapping, it quickly began to morph into a book about control, internal conflict and strange proclivities. Despite the problems that I ended up having with it, I felt that Hannah was really at the top of her game when it comes to the psychological suspense that she so liberally uses to spice up her plot.

Though I’m sure Alice wouldn’t agree with the assessment of her as a person inflicted with damaged self-esteem, it was clear that this was most definitely the case. As an adult orphan, Alice has come to rely upon, and even to crave and depend upon, the benevolent behavior of her very controlling mother-in law. The ever-present Vivianne has taken the liberty of managing every aspect of Alice and David’s lives, and also the lives of her grandchildren, the new baby Florence, and the young Felix, David’s son from a previous marriage. The newly married couple live exclusively in Vivianne’s mansion, where she not only controls their movements but their minds and activities as well. It was strange to read about a woman who had so completely engulfed the wills of those around her, and as the story progressed, I began to see that Vivianne was harboring some malicious intentions of her own, which she would see through to the end. I can’t say that I recognized these things immediately because there was such a polished layer of veneer over Vivianne and her actions, but as I grew to understand what she was capable of, I grew more and more frightened of her.

One of the things that I found most interesting was the changing relationship between Alice and David. Though Alice makes several excuses for David’s coldness and emotional unavailability, it became apparent that there was something drastically wrong with him once the baby went missing. I wondered to myself just what Alice was thinking when she agreed to marry this man, and wondered if he had somehow tricked her into believing that he was a different kind of person altogether. At times he was frighteningly brutal and calculating, and one of the things that I felt wasn’t addressed fully was why this behavior was coming out of him in these tense moments. Hannah gives a brief explanation, but to my sensibilities, it didn’t seem all that realistic or plausible. David’s strange behavior provided most of the drama and tension in the storyline. Creepily cunning and perversely bent, David, I feel, was the true villain in this tale, though others would probably say otherwise. During these sections of the book, it was an effort to tear myself away from the page because David’s actions seemed so far out in left field and so undeniably aggressive.

Alice was also a puzzling conundrum by the close of this book. I had the feeling that she was a lot more manipulative than I had first realized, and there was at least one section where I felt that Hannah had broken trust with me as a reader and let the machinations of her story become somewhat unbelievable and uninspiring. Though this didn’t happen until the very end, it made me doubt the author and made me wonder what kinds of concessions she had made to further her agenda of a suspenseful plot. While I did admire most of this book, the ending felt too meticulously engineered, and there were times when this strategy of an unreliable narrator made me want to throw the book against the wall. I spoke about this to my husband and related the whole plot to him, in addition to my problems with it. He actually felt very differently than I did and appreciated the subtle nuances of how the story ended. Unreliable narrators usually make or break a book for me, and in this case I didn’t fully appreciate the trick that Hannah played on her audience.

Though I had issues with the conclusion, I was able to appreciate what Hannah had created overall and thought that all the requirements of a great psychological mystery had been fully met. In fact, had it not have been for the ungainly and sloppy ending, it might have become one of the contenders for a favorite. As it was, I just couldn’t get in line with Hannah’s final twist, and that had lasting repercussions on what I felt for the entire narrative. It was a very involving and interesting read, but it wasn’t completely pulled off without a hitch.

21 comments:

Brooke said...

I'm oddly interested in this one. The baby swap idea combined with crazy psychological antics has me intrigued. I also always enjoy a good controlling evil mother-in-law tale. Great review!

Suko said...

Zibilee, this does sound like a great psychological mystery, all in all. Fabulous and insightful review, as always!

Andi said...

This one sounds CRAZY! But interesting and compelling crazy. Had never heard of it, so thanks for bringing it to my attention!

bermudaonion said...

Hm, I wonder why she felt compelled to put that last little twist in there. I've never tried Hannah's work but hope to soon since she's coming here.

Literary Feline said...

I have a friend who loves Sophie Hannah's books, but I haven't yet read one. The premise of this one sounds intriguing! And so strange. My first thought was of the movie Changeling, which I believe was actually based on a true story--of course, her son was not an infant. Anyway, I doubt the plot is the same in either case.

Athira said...

That book definitely has one of the strangest summaries ever. I know what you mean - even I am now excited to check it out based on that summary alone.

Vasilly said...

This book sounds like a nail-biter! I've read a book with a similar synopsis years ago but while that book didn't satisfy me, I think this one will. Great review.

Alex said...

This is the first in a series, number seven came out earlier this year. They all work in exactly the same way in terms of how they are structured and consequently are getting a bit stale, which is a shame as they characters develop in interesting ways. I would definitely recommend that you read the second one which in the UK was published as 'Hurting Distance'. I think it's 'The Truth-Teller's Tale' in the US.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I'm not familiar with this title, but have heard of the author. It's one I plan to add to my wish list, despite the fact it had a few isssues. Just sounds like something I might enjoy.

Glad to be reading your reviews again:0

geosi said...

Sometimes, the endings of books may not sound the way we wanted. An interesting book though.

Harvee Lau said...

Heather: You won a book on my blog. Can you send me your snail mail? Harvee@Book Dilettante

harvee44@yahoo.com

Trisha said...

Very intriguing review. You have me adding it to the list even though it sounds simultaneously exciting and frustrating.

Mrs Q Book Addict said...

I'm really curious about this book. It's not something I would normally choose for myself, but it sounds really mysterious.

Iris said...

I have been thinking that I need to read one of Sohpie Hannah's books. I had never heard of her before pre-blogging, but she sounds so interesting. I think this might not be ideal to start with given your problems with the ending (I admit you do have me curious about the end!) Have you read any of her other books?

nomadreader said...

I've never read Sophie Hannah, but I know she's a popular and prolific author, so I was glad to learn more about her writing in this review. It doesn't sound like it's for me, but I enjoyed reading your thoughts today!

Booklogged said...

Zibilee, I think you should write a novel. You not only have great insights into this book but you express them so well. Did the people in your book club generally like or dislike this book?

I tagged you for a rather lengthy but fun award. Check it out at A Reader's Journal. Do it only if you it strikes your fancy.

bibliosue said...

What is it with endings? Lately the trend seems to be great stories with less than great endings (major exception: Gone Girl. THAT was an ending!)
This does sound interesting and like another commenter mentioned I am now curious about the ending.

Stacy at The Novel Life said...

very, very interesting! I've never heard of this one, but it sounds so deceptive and creepy! I'm not great with unreliable narrators either, so go ahead and tell me what the twist is in the end! Come on, please! pretty pretty please!

Darlene said...

You know I don't think I've read anything by this author although I've heard a lot about her. Either way this book sounds like something I would like so I may have to pick it up.

Ana @ things mean a lot said...

I know exactly what you mean about unreliable narrators making or breaking a book for you. I'm curious to see how I'd feel about this one!

Aarti said...

Wow, what a strange premise! The relationship between David and Alice sounds deliciously creepy, and I can't imagine what must have happened for David to swap his own daughter with another...

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