REVIEW: THE DARKENING HOUR BY PENNY HANCOCK

THE DARKENING HOUR

Author: Penny Hancock
Simon & Schuster RRP $24.99
Review: Monique Mulligan 

The Darkening HourI watched French film And If We All Lived Together? (Et si on vivait tous ensemble?) at the weekend, which was about five ageing friends’ decision to live together rather than in retirement homes. It wasn’t easy as personalities, eccentricities, past hurts and new challenges collided, but it made for a bittersweet, and at times funny, film. The Darkening Hour also explores the decision of two very different women to live under the same roof, but it was a vastly different relationship – instead of friendship, the women were bound by an employer-employee relationship, with increasingly dark overtones. As I read, I found myself entranced by the story told skilfully through two voices, wondering who to trust, as the characters wondered the same.

Broadcast journalist Theodora (Dora) is struggling to care for her elderly, frail father and a teenage son who is not inclined to do more than play computer games. At her wits’ end, she welcomes the arrival of Mona, a migrant worker brought over from Morocco. In Mona, she sees respite; Mona can take on the responsibility for her father, while Dora pushes ahead with her career and her affair with a married man. Mona has two reasons for taking on the job: finding her missing husband Ali, who she believes is in London, and sending money to her ill mother and young daughter.

As the women adapt to the new living arrangements, power struggles emerge and tensions rise. Before trust has had time to take root, mistrust festers. Theodora suspects Mona has a hidden agenda, while Mona notes that her employer’s initial kindness was short-lived. Expectations are upped, jealousies ignite and assumptions grow as each woman fights for survival under a rapidly changing battleground. They need each other, but living under the same roof is untenable. Who will snap under pressure? What lengths will they go to hold onto their sense of self? And who can they trust, if not each other?

Skilled storytelling and clever characterisation made The Darkening Hour a thrilling pleasure to read. The story is told alternately through each woman’s perspective, sometimes re-telling the same incident, other times moving the story forward. The reader is always asking, “How reliable is this narrator? Can I trust her?” Gradually, the reader starts to see that one narrator is more unreliable and this realisation carries the story through to its dark conclusion.

While the story examines the relationship between the women and plays on the tension created by their reactions to each other, it also raises an issue I knew nothing about until I read this book, that of modern-day migrant domestic servitude in Britain. Hancock highlights the conditions and lack of rights migrant domestic workers (from outside the EU) face through Mona’s story, an unfamiliar issue to me here in Australia. On her blog Hancock recalls the day she and friends gathered to talk about the “problem of domestic servitude and modern day slavery in Britain” and read from The Darkening Hour when news broke of a real case that sounded “scarily similar, but was now looking increasingly sinister,  grotesque, and shocking”. This case of truth imitating fiction made her feel uncomfortable, but also prompted questions about the role of fiction. Is it simply to tell a good story or does it have a “moral function or duty to raise awareness”?

Fantastic question, isn’t it. I love a good awareness-raising story (and The Darkening Hour certainly did that, without appearing moralistic or having an overly journalistic tone), but for me the story comes first. I have to want to read it; without the desire to turn the pages, there is no point.  What do you think? For me, The Darkening Hour was a page-turner that thrilled and chilled all the way to the end … and left me wondering both about what might happen next, and the issues it raised.

Available from good bookstores. This copy was courtesy of Simon & Schuster.

Bookish treat: Mona cooks a variety of Moroccan treats in this novel. I’m craving one of her sweet cakes.