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by Nuala Ellwood
William Morrow, July 2017
416 pages
ISBN: 0062661965

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Kate Rafter is the product of a seriously dysfunctional family. The eldest of three children, one of whom, her baby brother, drowned while still a small child, she witnessed her father's savage attacks on her mother and bore the brunt of them herself, while her younger sister, Sally, never seemed able to intervene. Kate predictably left home as soon as she could, went off to university, succeeded in carving out an impressive career for herself as a frontline journalist, specializing in on-the-ground reportage from conflict zones like Aleppo.

Now she is back home in Herne Bay, following her mother's death, planning to wind up her mother's affairs and sell the family home. But she is hardly in any shape to manage. She has been in the field for too long and seen too much. She is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and has difficulty distinguishing reality from flashback. Nor is her sister of any use - she is sunk in an alcoholic daze, subsisting largely on three bottles of white wine a day.

The book opens in the Herne Bay police station, where Kate is being interviewed by a psychiatrist to establish whether is mentally stable or requires sectioning. We do not know (nor can Kate quite remember) what she's done but we do learn a great deal about her mental state. The narrative alternates between accounts of her interrogation and the story of the week leading up to her detention, all told from Kate's point of view. It is a gripping, absorbing tale as over the week, Kate slips further and further into dissociation, haunted by her failure to save the life of a little boy in Aleppo, a child who comes achingly to life in her memory. Staying in her mother's house, she believes she sees a little boy in the garden, crying for help, crying for his mummy. But the next-door neighbour denies having a child. Kate is not sure that he exists and the reader can only read on compulsively, anxious to find out.

Up to this point, I was staying up too late reading, unable to put the book down. But three-quarters of the way along, I got to Book Two and things changed. This section is told from Sally's point of view and she is an irritating soul. She is a sodden alcoholic, spiteful when roused but generally lethargic. Being in her company for long is trying. But the real problem lies in a kind of awkwardness as the plot develops and the book suddenly takes on the language of high (and dated) melodrama. There were unfortunate reminders of suspense films of the 1930s as the pitch increased.

And it is unfortunate. The first section is as strong a debut as any I've seen recently and represents a sympathetic and insightful consideration of the phenomenon of PTSD. It makes valid connections between individual guilt (whether appropriate or not) and the onset of symptoms. It raises the question of links between domestic abuse and war criminality. And it keeps the reader on edge, unable to decide what is real, what is not, and where it is all heading. It might well be accompanied by a trigger warning.

But thereafter, when the demands of a too-clever plot take over, disbelief sets in and cannot be dismissed. Ellwood appears anxious to establish a connection between war and domestic violence and there are valid parallels to be drawn. But sadly, when the author appears to succumb to the lure of great commercial success in the mode of THE GIRL ON A TRAIN, things fall seriously apart. And the unfortunate epilogue ought really to have been rethought in the light of recent political developments.

All the same, Ellwood's debut is evidence of a significant talent. I certainly look forward to seeing where she takes it from here.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, July 2017

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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