Natty and Sean Wainwright are happily married. Rock solid in fact. So when Natty’s oldest friend, Eve Dalladay, appears – just as their daughter collapses on a school trip in France – Natty has no qualms about leaving Eve with Sean to help out at home. Two weeks later and Natty finds Eve has slotted into family life too well. Natty’s husband has fallen in love with Eve. He’s sorry, he tells her, but their marriage is over. With no option but to put a brave face on things for the sake of the children, Natty embarks on building a new life for herself. And then she receives the note. Eve has done this before, more than once, and with fatal consequences…

Having read and favourably reviewed Paula Daly’s first novel. Just What Kind of Mother Are You? last year, it was with a great sense of anticipation that Keep Your Friends Close dropped into my lap. And remained there for the course of one night- and early hours of the morning- as this wonderfully warped tale of familial loyalty, and twisted friendship, kept me reading…and reading…and reading…

I think what Daly achieves with this book is the sense of how ordinary and humdrum domestic life, with its inherent frustrations and tensions, can be so easily undone. Set again, in the beautiful location of the Lake District, the ordinariness of people’s struggle to earn a living, in such a seasonally-dictated to environment, looms large within the book.  Her portrayal of the mind-numbing routines of most people’s families, and the petty insecurities and jealousies that can arise is brilliantly depicted, along with the differing needs and wishes of those in a marriage, that can come to the fore by the insertion of an outsider into the mix. Sean and Natty are a typical couple, both working long hours with two teenage daughters and their lives redolent of the tensions and strains, that their striving for something better, brings to bear on a relationship. Theirs is an ordinary marriage, until the arrival of Natty’s friend Eve, a glamorous, and as it turns out, exceptionally scheming woman, who puts more than a cat among the pigeons with her seduction of the hapless Sean, when Natty has to leave the home temporarily to deal with a family crisis. Okay- so fair enough- Sean’s head could easily be turned a woman who is the polar opposite of his wife- but what Daly achieves so well in this book, is the slow reveal of the determination that Natty has to usurp this woman, and how little they all know about the real Eve….

I think the joy with Daly’s writing is the sudden explosions of surprise that she pops into the plot, be it blunt humour, bad language, unforseen violence and so on. You’re reading along quite happily- or as happily as you can in the tension of this psychological thriller-  and then boom, something looms up in the text that either makes you laugh out loud, or shudder. The book is punctuated by moments like this- hence the ease of  reading this in one sitting- and a fair scattering of surprises as these two women take on the likeness of fighting lionesses in order to remain within, or regain the power, in this family. Yes, there were a couple of twists that I found a little too far-fetched, but I can’t say that they spoilt my enjoyment in any way, as the plot swiftly moved on to new revelations, and an ending that literally made me say- well I wasn’t expecting that!

A novel of moral and emotional complexity, that to my mind crosses the boundaries between crime and mainstream fiction, but ticks all the boxes in terms of suspense and how easily the humdrum ordinariness of domestic life can be uprooted so easily. More importantly though, a compelling psychological thriller that will keep you gripped.

Keep Your Friends Close- Extract

‘Am I over the limit is the first question I ask myself. Am I too drunk to drive?

‘Natty, who was that?’ Eve asks.

‘Felicity’s in hospital. She’s being operated on right now.’

I hear my words spoken from what seems like the other side of the room. I’m shaking. Not just shaking. It’s shock. Where has all the blood gone?

‘They didn’t know,’ I say without emotion. ‘The teachers didn’t know she was even sick.’

‘What’s wrong with her?’ Eve asks. ‘What did the teacher actually say?’

‘They don’t know what’s wrong. She collapsed. They’re not completely sure she’ll make it.’

Eve bursts into action. She doesn’t comfort me, or tell me not to worry, or tell me Felicity will be okay. She grabs the phone, uses the speed dial to call the hotel and tells Sean in a business-like manner that he needs to come home, there’s an emergency.

‘Why did I let her go to France?’ I whisper. ‘She’s only fourteen, too young to travel alone. Why did I let her go? What was I thinking?’ Eve looks at me straight.

‘They’re fixing her, Natty. It doesn’t make any difference that she’s in France. They’re saving her life. We need to get you there as soon as possible. Let me search for flights.’

‘Do you think she’ll die?’

‘Go and pack a bag.’

The shaking is violent now.

Eve repeats slowly: ‘Natty, go and find your passport and pack your bag.’

My guts have become a bucket of eels. I don’t think I can stand, let alone board an aircraft. I stay fixed to the chair. If I just stay here, it will all go away. I put my hands between my thighs and squeeze tight to stop the shaking.

‘Natty! Move!’

‘I can’t,’ I say.

‘You have to.’

I’m shuffling about the bedroom trance-like, picking up bits of underwear, T-shirts, when Sean appears in the doorway. He doesn’t speak. We simply look at one another for an extended moment. Is this it we’re both thinking. Is this the rest of our lives? Do we move from the standard, the typical family of four, petty worries, petty fall-outs? Do we move into that other realm? Do we join the ranks of families who’ve lost a child? My first thought hearing the teacher give me the news about Felicity was to whisper, ‘Not this one. Please, God, not this child. Then immediately I felt utterly wretched, because did I really want him to take my other child instead? I’ve spent the last ten minutes bargaining with God. Even though I’ve not really been a believer since – well, since he deserted me, age nineteen. Please save her, I’m begging again now. Please, I’ll do anything. Take everything away from us, strip us of all that we know, but do not let my child die Sean strides towards me. Puts his arms around my body, and I begin crying silently. There is so much terror inside my chest I cannot form sound. I’m struck by the realization that this is what it must be like to be attacked. Women, girls, say their voices simply leave them. Their bodies scream in fury, but nothing comes, their larynxes paralysed by fear.

‘There’s one seat left,’ Sean says gravely. ‘Manchester to Rennes. It leaves in two hours. I’ll take it, Natty, you stay here. You’re in no state to travel. You can fly out tomorrow morning.’

‘What if we lose her, Sean?’

He shakes his head as though he’s not about to answer that question.

‘We need to decide. One of us needs to get on the road right now if we’re to make it in time.’

‘I’m going.’

‘I’m not sure you can. Look at you,’ he says, and he takes my shaking hands, lifts them for me to see, as if to drive home his point.

‘But if she dies and I’m not with her, then how can I ever . . .’

My words disappear in my throat.

‘You can be there by eleven tomorrow morning at the latest.

Stay here, Natty, let me do this.’

I pull my hands away. ‘No. It has to be me.’

And I feel him relenting. Another moment of quiet deliberation, and he says, ‘Okay.

Okay, let’s get your things together. We need to move quickly.’

He pulls the overnight bag from the top of the wardrobe, unzips it and begins gently laying the small stack of T-shirts, jeans and underwear inside. I watch him, knowing I should be running around, grabbing everything I need, but the thought of Felicity unconscious in the operating theatre without me by her side keeps me rooted to the spot.

Sean lifts his head. ‘Natty?’ he says, a cloud of fear passing over his face. ‘Natty,’ he says gently, ‘which shoes do you want to take with you?’

‘Huh?’

‘Shoes? Which ones?’

‘Oh, I don’t know. Hang on,’ and I walk to the wardrobe and stare at the choice, baffled. Then I turn back to Sean. ‘What about Alice?’ I ask him, frowning. ‘If you come to France tomorrow, who will look after Alice? We can’t leave her here alone. Christ, Sean, you know what she’s like, she can’t even open a can of beans. And your mother’s away, and my dad’s housebound and—’

‘It’s all right,’ he says, grabbing my electric toothbrush, ‘Eve has offered to stay…

                                                     ————————-

(With thanks to Alison Barrow at Transworld for the ARC)

ACK BOWMAN

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