Note, the format of my Short and Sweet reviews differs in that they simply comprise the book blurb and a short response (hence, the short and sweet).
Clever cover design, isn’t it? I didn’t pick this book because of the cover, though – the blurb sucked me in – though the more I look at that peephole, the more it draws me in. Here’s the blurb:
This unsettling debut novel tells the story of an unlikely friendship between two very different women.In the queue for the toilets at Gatwick, a teenage girl catches 57-year-old Margaret Benson’s eye in the mirror and mouths the word help. Margaret’s reaction leads to the dramatic rescue of the teenager from her trafficker and Margaret becomes a hero.But when the story gets picked up by the papers, Margaret is panicked by the publicity, as well as the strange phone calls she begins to receive. Meanwhile Anja makes contact. She wants to thank her rescuer, but she also quickly inserts herself into Margaret’s lonely life. As their friendship develops, so do questions: who is Margaret hiding from, and what are Anja’s true motives? And what is the cost of living a lie?
Author Alex Hourston has delivered a quiet, but unsettling novel that acts as a peephole into one woman’s life. Margaret keeps to herself, for the most part. She has a small group of fellow dog-owners she meets regularly, but she keeps them at arm’s length, like she does with most people she meets. Somehow, despite her best efforts, she finds herself opening up to Anja, the young woman she “rescued” from a trafficking operation, believing the young woman needs her. However, Anja needs Margaret less than Margaret needs Anja; when Margaret realises this, tension ensues as one pushes and the other pulls away.
The trafficking aspect is minor – it’s really just a hook to get Anja into Margaret’s life. What results from their meeting is a slow-building, careful character study that reveals the many layers of Margaret – the wife, the lover, the ex-wife, the mother, the estranged mother. After living for years with regret, guilt and weighty secrets, Margaret sees Anja almost as a pathway to redemption, a chance to do things right this time; as such, her attitude towards Anja moves from wary to curious to motherly, and even desirous. This progression is not without discomfort for Anja, or the reader. I imagine it would have been disconcerting for Margaret, too – reflecting on her life, her choices and her ways of relating to people past and present all because someone opened a door she’d shut rather firmly.
Hourston’s use of dialogue is interesting, but won’t suit every reader, with its halting, fragmented sentences. They do reflect real speech, but I found the style to be distracting.
Available from good bookstores (RRP $29.99AU). My copy was courtesy of Allen & Unwin.