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by Christobel Kent
Sarah Crichton Books, March 2018
416 pages
ISBN: 0374279551

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Natalie, generally known as Nat, is a woman in her twenties, barmaid in a rural pub in an unidentified British county, and recently separated from her childhood sweetheart, Jim. That separation and the primary cause of it has left Nat in a less than settled condition, so when her fellow barmaid, Beth, simply disappears, she is at first disappointed and then deeply concerned.

Very few others seem worried about Beth, however. She was known as a good time sort of girl, sexually active, and confident in her ability to handle men and avoid real danger. It's this latter confidence that encourages most of those who know her not to worry about her absence. She's that kind of girl, they think, and some of them who are in serious relationships breathe a certain sigh of relief that she no longer is around to aim an inquisitive eyebrow in the direction of their partners. A few biddies even suggest that if she's come to no good, then that's what happens to girls like her. Nat is not one of these, however. From the beginning she believes that something bad has happened to Beth, even though hardly anyone, not even the police, appears the least interested.

It took me, at least, some time to figure out why Nat was so anxious about Beth. One reason, of course, is that despite her general muddleheadedness, Nat has a good heart. When one of her favourite customers, ninety-year-old Victor, is hospitalized with stroke and his family is difficult to contact, Nat does her best to stand in for Victor's missing daughter and appears genuinely to care for the old man. But her obsession with Beth's absence seems to come from more than a kind disposition.

The tale is told from several points of view, most notably from Nat's and Victor's and, less fortunately, from the unnamed killer, who is a bit of a cliché. Neither of the two leads is very clearheaded. Victor, recovering from a minor stroke, takes a while to remember what it is that is now putting him in danger even in his hospital room. Nat is all over the place, trying to sort out friend from menace, always on edge since she senses, but cannot prove, that she is being stalked. As a result, the book unfolds very slowly. Though called "psychological suspense," it is largely lacking in suspense, though it heats up a bit in the concluding chapters, when things come to a head.

Nevertheless, I read this with considerable interest, trying to understand what was motivating Nat, a character you cannot help but like. Gradually, it emerged that Beth was important because she represented a degree of autonomy and control that Nat could only hope to achieve. The situation for the women that Kent describes is, on the whole, a desperate one and not just for barmaids. When Victor's daughter is finally located, it transpires that despite her age (she is around fifty), she is abused by the husband she married only a few years ago and both she and her young son are terrified of him, with good reason. Nat is perfectly clear about the need to help her and help she does, but she is never clear about any of the men she deals with, except for Victor. By the time the actual killer is revealed, she acquit any of them of complicity in Beth's death - she is frightened of them all, but determined to get to the bottom of things all the same.

Nor can the reader confidently acquit any of the men save Victor. Even when all is resolved and the danger past, none of the male characters emerges as altogether above suspicion. It is an unusual tack for this kind of female in jeopardy novel to take and an intriguing one, if unsettling.

This is by no means an unflawed work. It moves far too slowly and it is longer than it needs to be. But it is well written and it does grasp one's attention if given a bit of a chance. On the whole, it's worth what time and effort you put into it and blessedly, if this is not a spoiler, it contains no tricky bits of manipulation, for which I was most grateful.

§ 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, February 2018

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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