Kate and Sally grew up in the family home in Herne Bay. From early childhood they would frequently witness their drunken father viciously beating their mother and when Kate moved to intervene he would beat her too. Realising that an earlier family tragedy had inextricably bound her parents together Kate escaped as soon as she could and now sees violence and bloodshed on a near daily basis as a war reporter. Sally became an emotionally damaged teenaged mother who struggled to manage her daughter, but life sometimes gives second chances and now she has an adoring spouse. Nevertheless her daughter Hannah ran away at the age of sixteen and Sally is driven to seek refuge in alcohol abuse and denial.
Their father is long dead when the tale begins but now their mother has died and Kate has flown home to settle her mother’s estate. Sally is drunk for most of the time and the animosity between the sisters is such that Kate has opted to stay alone in their mum’s house and enjoy the peace. But peace is something Kate cannot find, suffering from PTSD from her work as a war reporter she can barely sleep and combines pills with alcohol to blot out the vivid nightmares. To add to her misery her long-term lover has ended their relationship in favour of his wife and Kate has miscarried the only baby she might ever have had. Confusing nightmares and family history with current reality Kate becomes certain that there is an unhappy child in the house next door although her neighbour denies it. Then Kate sees the child again but this time he is crying in the night and her reporter’s instincts refuse to be silenced. Her actions lead to her arrest and she is held for a full psychiatric assessment that involves raking in detail over the past she doesn’t want to face. Released with a restriction preventing her from returning to the street Kate opts to go back to Syria, but before she leaves she pays a visit to Sally and despite their many ongoing disagreements she begs Sally to keep an eye out for the little boy. From here on both sisters find themselves plunged into terrible danger.
The first half of the story skilfully intersperses details of Kate’s life and past as revealed through the psychiatric assessment interview, with the events of the week leading up to her arrest and her decision to return to Syria. The rest of the tale then develops the mystery of the little boy and reveals, as studies have shown, that children who witness domestic violence are more likely to be affected by violence as adults – either as victims or perpetrators.
At its heart this is a tale full of violence, darkness and illness, but it is also a tale of love and of survival. It is packaged as a thriller and it keeps its secrets right up to the terrifying dénouement. It’s a clever, complicated and well executed story with excellent character development and sound psychology behind it. This is Ellwood’s debut novel and she found inspiration for the themes in the experiences of her sister and her father, both of whom are journalists. I found it absorbing and disturbing and felt compelled to read it through in one day.
I give it 4 bites, a meal that leaves a bitter taste but I expect it to be a very popular dish.