SAFE AS HOUSES
Author: Simone van der Vlugt
Canongate Trade Australia RRP $19.99
Review: Monique Mulligan
Short but scary, Safe As Houses kept me riveted from beginning to end. I’m glad it was short because it was hard to stop reading, such was the tension created by Simone van der Vlugt, one of Holland’s best-selling crime writers. She’s another new crime writer for me to add to my list, but how fast I get my hands on her books may depend on how fast they are translated … or how fast I learn Dutch.
Lisa is a single mother living in her isolated house with her five-year-old daughter, Anouk. She’s hanging out the washing, when suddenly a man appears. He grabs at her and she runs, but she is not quick enough. Suddenly Lisa and her young daughter find themselves held hostage in their own home by an escaped murderer, convicted of killing his wife and two children. The man wants Lisa to play the role of wife, in every possible way, yet he makes it clear that he has little esteem for women. When Lisa sees a woman looking through the window, a witness to her captivity, she hopes help will soon be on the way.
Senta peers in the window of Lisa’s house, hoping someone will give her directions. What she sees through the window makes her stumble away, intent on getting help; days later she wakes in hospital. Told she’s had a car accident and was pulled from a lake by a kind stranger, Senta has a nagging feeling there was a reason she was driving fast the day of the crash, but the memory won’t come to the surface, no matter how hard she tries to force it. Meanwhile, Lisa, having given up hope of rescue, must do whatever she can to protect her child.
Van der Vlugt doesn’t waste words with this lean and mean thriller. The tension builds well, creating a pulse-racing psychological thriller that is enhanced by the use of the present tense. What seems to be a simple hostage situation (if they are ever simple) at the outset becomes more complex as Lisa fights to stay one step ahead of a killer, pitting her wits against a disturbed and easily angered foe. I particularly liked the way the reader is encouraged to identify with the female characters, to see how they work their way through horrific situations without purely resorting to physical strength (as many male characters are wont to do).
Lisa is an interesting character – she won’t give in easily, even if it appears that way and everything she does, be it lying or sleeping with the enemy, has her child’s safety in mind. Her ability to lie to a madman so she can get him onside and the force of her anger adds to the tension, because for some time, it’s hard to know what or who to believe. She’s not someone I’d like to cross and at the end, I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of her – throughout the story, there seemed to be a distance between Lisa and the reader – but when it comes down to it, I’m a mother and I would fight for my kids, no question. Senta’s thoughts were more transparent. I got the feeling her desire to figure out what the missing link that led to her accident (seeing Lisa through the window), was borne of a need to right things in her own relationship.
Available from good bookstores and Allen & Unwin. This copy was courtesy of Allen & Unwin.
Bookish treat: Toast and tea to calm the mind.