Bo Luxton has it all – a loving family, a beautiful home in the Lake District, and a clutch of bestselling books to her name. Enter Alice Dark, an aspiring writer who is drifting through life, with a series of dead-end jobs and a freeloading boyfriend. When they meet at a writers’ retreat, the chemistry is instant, and a sinister relationship develops … Or does it?

With marked similarity to the books of Barbara Vine and Minette Walters, Exquisite by Sarah Stovell is a discomforting and taut tale of sexual obsession and damaged personalities that will keep you gripped…

Focussing on an initially altruistic friendship between an established author, Bo Luxton, and her young protegee and fledgling writer, Alice Dark, Stovell constructs an increasingly menacing story, built on unreliable narrators and alternating points of view. The structure of the book is also underpinned by a third narration set within the confines of a women’s prison in Yorkshire, automatically causing us to cast aspersions on which of our female protagonists, if either, are incarcerated within. These alternate narratives work beautifully in terms of controlling the suspense, and each is perfectly weighted, to disabuse the reader of flicking between one and the other, holding the interest throughout. Stovell uses these split narratives to great effect, and the unreliable narration works its magic to unsettle, and cause conflict in our own perceptions of these two women. Personally, I didn’t like either of them hugely from the outset, which perhaps is a credit to Stovell’s depiction of both, and I did question the intensity of their relationship which seemed at odds, and slightly unbelievable in light of what we knew of their lives. However, my sympathy was aroused for one character towards the close of the book, particularly with the exceedingly dark , though slightly obvious occurrence on the last page. I also found the presence of Bo’s husband Gus unsatisfying and increasingly superfluous, but as the story builds around Bo and Alice, this was I suppose the author’s intention.

Aside from this, the prose itself is darkly engaging, with interludes of beautifully lyrical descriptions of the Lake District itself, set against the intensity of the burgeoning tension, and increasingly dangerous nature of the relationship between Bo and Alice. Each woman’s point of view weaves seamlessly in and out of the other, leading the reader to question constantly, and form their own opinions of the veracity of each. Trying not to give anything away here, which is difficult, there is also an exploration of Bo and Alice’s formative years, and how the nature of their childhood familial relationships have impacted on them, and formed their personalities. Increasingly this brings to the fore the age old question of nature vs nurture, and with Bo’s own identity as a mother herself, it is interesting to see the ramifications of her previous life experience in her own relationship with her husband and children.

All in all, Exquisite is a largely satisfying psychological thriller with the influence of others in the genre looming large, but taking on an identity of its own. It is a disturbing tale of lies, jealousy and obsession, which will more than sate the reader of the current domestic noir crop, but definitely at the darker end of the spectrum. Recommended.

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