There’s Always Someone Watching… Leo Benedictus-Consent / James Lasdun- The Fall Guy

 

This book is an experiment.
We’re experimenting together.

You are part of the experiment, if you’ll agree to it.

Normally I don’t let my subjects choose to be subjects. If you know you’re being watched, you cease to be you.

But I want you to read this. I wrote it for you.

This magnetic book pulls you in its wake even as you resist its force. Sometimes you don’t want to know what’s next…

Just to make my reviewing equally difficult, here is another book,  that in common with the book jacket itself, I am going to tell you hardly anything about in terms of plot. I saw the author being interviewed by James Naughtie recently, and my interest was piqued by what I was liberally describing as a creepy ass psychological thriller to my bookselling colleagues….

I thought this was absolutely superb and a truly dark and deliciously twisted thriller, entwining us in the psyche of a stalker, and providing a commentary on the repercussions of his actions on just one of his many chosen targets, Frances.  Benedictus is completely without fear in his representation of this despicable individual and the measures he takes to inveigle himself more and more deeply into Frances’ life, and the danger this poses to both her associates, both personal and professional, and to Frances herself. I was mesmerised by the supremely cool and dispassionate first person narrative of the stalker, whose actions seem perfectly reasonable to his own consciousness, but grow increasingly unsettling and worrisome to us, as we pre-empt the effect his actions will have on Frances. Likewise, the growing unease and persecution of Frances, slowly gathers pace, again feeding into, and adding to the chilling nervous tension that Benedictus perfectly builds. I enjoyed his depiction of Frances, as such a normal, hard working, ambitious, and unencumbered by personal vanity type of woman, as this sense of her being such an ‘everywoman’ resonates much more strongly with a female reader, and making her plight all the more tangible, and ramping up the effect on us as a reader.

I am always held in the thrall of writing that has a tangible physical effect on me as a reader, and Consent did this admirably, as I felt my heartbeat quicken on several occasions, and a slight roiling of the belly at one particularly graphic moment, that discomfited even this normally strong stomached reader. I didn’t, however, object to the use of violence in this particular context, unlike say the gratuitous violence of American Psycho (which I do have a wee soft spot for), as to my mind it actually worked extremely well within plot, and allows the book to remain on the right side of the needlessly voyeuristic.  It merely elevated the fear quotient a little more, and gave the narrative a swift injection of kapow, before carrying us along to that unexpected, supremely creepy denouement…shudders…

I thought the pacing, use of language and increasingly uncomfortable feeling that this book produced in me was cleverly done, perhaps reflected by my reading this in pretty much one sitting, and putting down the book with a palpable sense of satisfaction, despite that truly dark and unsettling ending.

As it says on the cover, Read Me….

Highly recommended.

(I bought this copy of Consent, published by Faber Books)

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It is summer, 2012. Charlie, a wealthy banker with an uneasy conscience, invites his troubled cousin Matthew to visit him and his wife in their idyllic mountaintop house. As the days grow hotter, the friendship between the three begins to reveal its fault lines, and with the arrival of a fourth character, the household finds itself suddenly in the grip of uncontrollable passions. Who is the real victim here? Who is the perpetrator? And who, ultimately, is the fall guy?

A new author for me, and a great introduction to his work, as The Fall Guy, resonates with a feel of Patricia Highsmith, and kept the Raven hooked in its clutches…

As is natural with an intense character driven psychological thriller of this kind, the synopsis above is all I am going to give you in terms of plot reveal. Like me, I would urge you to read this largely in a vacuum of unknowing, as the tension both in personal relationships, and the air of deceit and disloyalty, gradually builds and builds. With such a finite group of characters, I felt like I was almost observing a stage play, and for some reason I had an echo of Albee’s brilliant  Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf tickling in the back of mind throughout. I thought the relationship between the three main characters and the dips, ecstasies and growing dislike and distrust were beautifully played out, against the backdrop of a sultry heat that seemed to add to the tension of the piece even more. There is an increasingly poisonous relationship building between married couple Charlie and Chloe and cousin Matthew, and be warned your sympathies will be toyed with, and your allegiances shifted along the way…

Lasdun shows his perfect control of pace, as slight reveals and little moments of trickery, lulling us into the feeling that we know exactly what’s going on, and how this will all play out. Wrong tiddly wrong wrong. I was sucker punched by the ending, and was just so, so pleased that it caught me completely off guard. Beautifully paced, a brilliant escalation of tension, and great characterisation. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Vintage for the ARC)

 

#PolishBooks Blog Tour- Aga Lesiewicz- Exposure- *Exclusive Extract*

 

Welcome to the latest stop on the #PolishBooks blog tour,  in association with the  Polish Cultural Institute /@PLinst_London  to promote some of the best Polish writing. Exposure by Aga Lesiewicz  is a dark and gripping psychological thriller which will shock and delight you in equal measure…

When up-and-coming photographer Kristin begins to receive anonymous emails, her life in a trendy loft in London’s Hoxton with Anton, her ultra-cool, street-artist boyfriend, suddenly begins to feel unsafe. The emails come with sinister attachments that suggest the sender has an intimate knowledge of Kristin’s past, and soon her life spirals out of control.

Who can she trust? And will she be able to discover the sender’s identity before it’s too late?

Prologue

A new email pings in my mailbox and my chest tightens with anxiety. I know I have no reason to react like this anymore, but the sound still fills me with dread. I click on the mailbox icon and stare at its contents in disbelief.

Exposure 5’.

My worst nightmare isn’t over, after all.

I could ignore it, I could delete it, but I know it will appear again. And again. I also know there is no point in trying to trace its sender. The person who has sent it doesn’t want to be found and isn’t interested in my answer.

I take a deep breath and click on the attachment. It’s a photograph this time and it’s mesmerizing. I’ve seen something like this before. It seamlessly blends two images, the one of the view outside and that of the inside of a room. The image of the exterior is projected on the back wall of the room and is upside down. I rotate the picture on my computer screen and take a closer look. It’s a section of an urban riverbank, a uniform row of solid four- and five-storey houses, perched in a neat line above the dark water. The brown and beige brick mass is inter­rupted by splashes of colour, marking the developer’s frivolous idea of painting some of the tiny balconies white or blue. A modern addition breaks the brick monotony, an incongruous cube of glass and steel crowned with a ‘For Sale’ sign. Below, the river has left its mark on the mixture of rotting wood and concrete with a vibrant green bloom of algae clinging to the man-made walls. My heart begins to pound when I realize the view looks familiar.

I know where the photo was taken.

I rotate the image back and concentrate on the interior. It’s someone’s bedroom, dominated by a large bed. The heavy wooden frame fills the picture, its carved antique headboard clashing with the image of the exterior projected over it. The bed is unmade, a mess of pillows and a duvet entangled with sheets that are dark red, almost crimson. A small bedside table on the left, with an unlit brass lamp on top of it. Some books scattered on the floor, mostly large-format, hardcover art albums. I find my eye keeps coming back to one spot in the image, a body on the bed. The woman is partly covered by the crimson sheet, her dark hair spilling over the edge of the mattress. One of her arms is twisted at a weird angle, revealing a small tattoo on the inside of the forearm, just above the wrist. I recognize the image. And I can tell the woman is dead.

I close the attachment and get up from the table, away from the computer. I feel dizzy and faint, my skin clammy, the thin shirt I’m wearing drenched in cold sweat. No, I can’t let panic get the better of me. I have to think and act. I go to the sink and pour myself a glass of water from the tap. I drink it greedily, spilling some on the floor. It helps a little, but the choking sensation in my throat persists as I go back to the Mac and click on the attachment. I force myself to look at the image again. Yes, there is no doubt about it. I am the dead woman in the photograph. And I know who my killer is…

Aga Lesiewicz is a former TV producer and director. A knee injury led to a change in her career and prompted her to write her first psychological thriller Rebound. She lives in London. Visit her website here and follow on Twitter @Aga_Lesiewicz

Catch up with, or continue to follow the blog tour at these excellent sites:

Claire Kendal- The Book of You

Clarissa is becoming more and more frightened of her colleague, Rafe. He won’t leave her alone, and he refuses to take no for an answer. He is always there. Being selected for jury service is a relief. The courtroom is a safe haven, a place where Rafe can’t be. But as a violent tale of kidnap and abuse unfolds, Clarissa begins to see parallels between her own situation and that of the young woman on the witness stand. Realizing that she bears the burden of proof, Clarissa unravels the twisted, macabre fairy tale that Rafe has spun around them – and discovers that the ending he envisions is more terrifying than she could have imagined.

Fitting perfectly into the hugely sucessful crime genre of psychological suspense, prepare to enter Clarissa’s world- a complex but increasingly insecure woman, whose nightmare experience at the hands of a stalker, is laid bare in this compelling debut novel…

I think I can safely say that the majority of women have experienced at some time in their life the unwelcome attentions of another individual, admittedly not to the horrifying degree of Clarissa, but enough to unsettle and to impact in some way on your daily life. In The Book of You, Kendal amplifies this experience to terrifying heights, as her protagonist Clarissa, after a drunken one night stand (which actually reveals that she was date-raped) is then subjected to the creepy and slowly escalating attentions of her attacker Rafe. Rafe, a respected university lecturer, is imbued with a conniving and dangerous intelligence, that reveals itself gradually throughout the book, whilst highlighting the increasing inability of Clarissa to take action against him. He cleverly pre-empts her every move, and by degrees, Clarissa comes to realise that any course of action she may take would be largely ineffectual, as he tightens his grip on the control of her life, and disempowers her. By far the strongest aspect of this book is the way that Kendal portrays the increasingly questioning and undermined state of Clarissa’s interior monologue. With every move that Rafe makes, Clarissa cannot see past the fact that she would not be believed as he skilfully paints himself as more of an emotional victim at the hands of a neurotic woman. The frustrations that Clarissa experiences and that are relayed to us, are not only realistically portrayed, but raise a sense of frustration in the reader as we see Clarissa increasingly manipulated and outmanoeuvred by Rafe. This leads to an intensely claustrophobic reading experience akin to Elizabeth Haynes’ brilliant Into The Darkest Corner, where Kendal replicates the overbearing tension of psychological suspense.

In a parallel narrative, Clarissa has to embark on several weeks of jury service, observing the unfolding tale of a young woman brutally attacked and raped, by a group of men. As Clarissa’s own personal mental torment, ebbs and flows within the book in conjunction with the court case, there is a nice overlapping of these two tales that are defined so closely by their similarities. Two women who are fighting to be believed. I must admit I wasn’t altogether taken with the growing emotional relationship between Clarissa and one of her fellow jurors, and found this a all a bit forced and unnecessary, adding little to the plot overall, as her emotional distrust of men at this point would be unlikely to make a romantic entanglement under such emotional strain. I did, however, enjoy the increasing steel that Clarissa begins to show in extricating herself from Rafe’s dangerous attentions, so the descent into silly weak woman mode with her stereotypical hunky fireman, is offset.

Overall, a good suspenseful read with enough of the well-executed tension and suffocating claustrophobia that such a situation would produce in its victim. Kendal maintains a good pace of plot for the most part, and I found this a relatively quick and satisfying read, as the pace and reveals of the plot do make you reluctant to put down or break away from your reading. A good debut, and perfect for fans of a well-written psychological tale.

Claire Kendal was born in America and educated in England, where she has spent all of her adult life. The Book of You is her first novel. It will be translated into over a dozen languages. Claire teaches English Literature and Creative Writing, and lives in the South West with her family. She is working on her next psychological thriller.

10 Questions with Claire Kendal Harpercollins Indy Thinking

(With thanks to HarperCollins for the ARC,  and the incredibly sinister, but beautiful,  black rose that arrived on Valentine’s Day…)