Following the success of Cuckoo, Julia Crouch has written another psychological thriller that is sure to be equally well-received. Crouch is one of those writers who have the kind of writing style which make her books recognisable without them being ‘samey’, much in the same way as Sophie Hannah, a writer whose work I love (and must review at some point!).
When the Wayland family decamp to upstate New York for the summer to allow Marcus to perform in a community production of Macbeth, Lara and her kids – Olly, Bella and Jack – don’t know what to expect. What they get is a dirty and dusty house in a tiny town, with only a library and a pool for excitement, excepting the theatre, which is much smaller than they were led to believe. They are met by theatre company’s director, James and his wife Betty, who have arranged a surprise for the family, one which Lara in particular isn’t expecting. Stephen Molloy, one of Marcus’ old friends, now a Hollywood star, is in the area, recovering from a breakdown caused by a stalker in LA. He and Lara were also once in love, having an affair not long after Lara’s marriage to Marcus. The meeting at James and Betty’s reawakens feelings which Lara thought that she had hidden away forever, and throws her attempts at rekindling her marriage into total disarray. Soon Stephen and Lara are getting increasingly close again, but Lara is playing with fire and doesn’t seem to realise that she could get burnt…
In addition to Lara and Stephen’s story, there is a subplot involving Lara and Marcus’ eldest children, Bella and Olly. They are 16 year old twins who, at first, seem to have normal teenaged-sibling relationship, bickering and teasing. However, it is soon implied that there is more to it than that. Bella is obviously scared of Olly, and he frequently threatens her with something. When you find out what that something is, the book takes a more sinister turn.
There is a real sense of impending danger swirling around the novel. From the strange woman who seems to be following Lara, trying to run her over and making gestures, and the louts that Olly finds to hang out with, to the discoveries that Lara makes within the house, no chapter goes by without Crouch ratcheting up the tension, which goes some way to explain the slow pace of the first half of the novel.
Crouch has a skill for writing about place. In Cuckoo this was shown in the vivid descriptions of the West Country countryside, and in this novel it is the evocation of the hot New York summer. The filthy rental house, dusty deserted streets and the close, overheated atmosphere of the small town are well-matched to the slowly building tension and the boredom of seemingly endless days, and Stephen’s mansion in the woods offers a refuge from both the grimy heat and her failing relationship for Lara.