“Everyone hates Mondays. It’s the low point of the week. When the alarm clock goes off on Monday morning and it’s still dark outside, and you know you have to haul yourself out of bed and begin all over again.”
I’ve seen a couple of made-for-television films based on Nicci French books–Without You and Secret Smile to be specific. I’ve intended to read one of the novels for some time, and I was lucky enough to get a review copy of Blue Monday, a book I wanted to read after seeing reviews on Caroline’s blog and also on Reading Matters. Blue Monday is, according to the authors, Nicci Gerrard and Sean French, a husband and wife team–the first in a series of eight, so sign me up for the long haul; I’m hooked.
The novel begins very strongly with the disappearance of a five-year-old child. It’s 1987, a Monday and two little girls, sisters Joanna and Rosa walk home from school together, but when Rosa loses sight of her sister for just an instance, Joanna disappears. The novel charts the case with gripping intensity and poignant moments: the initial intense investigation, the suspects, the guilt, the grief, and then finally the acceptance that this child has vanished. Joanna’s father, the main suspect at one point, is a wreck of man who compares Joanna’s disappearance and the subsequent fallout to the unravelling of piece of knitting:
“Everything simply comes undone and in just a few moments nothing’s left to show anything was ever there.”
Fast forward twenty-two years; it’s another Monday and psychotherapist Frieda Klein is introduced into the story. She runs a small practice in London, lives alone, and is given to solitary walks at night–a habit that suits her insomnia and allows her to think through her many problems–both personal and professional. Her latest patient is Alan Dekker, a married man in his 40s. Lately Alan doesn’t feel quite well and suffers from nameless anxieties, panic attacks and the feeling that “a storm’s coming.” He admits to a “sense of being in the wrong life,” and wonders if he’s having some sort of mid-life crisis. Plagued by nightmares and strange visions, he consents to therapy and through circumstance, ends up sitting in front of Frieda. Although Alan is tightly wound and an introvert, he admits to longing for a child, a little red-haired boy, and then Frieda realises that Alan’s description uncannily matches the description of a missing five-year-old boy. Frieda faces a moral dilemma–should she tell the police or are her client’s fantasies harmless and coincidental? This moral dilemma leads Frieda to step outside of the patient-therapist boundaries and into the investigations of two missing children.
The authors successfully mesh the investigation of the missing boy with Frieda’s private and personal life. She struggles with her relationship with her one-time mentor, Reuben, who now finds himself bored by his patients and unable to concentrate on his cases, and Frieda must also come to a decision regarding Sandy, a man she’s finally allowed into her life. Then there’s her needy sister-in-law and her self-mutilating niece who aren’t above using a little emotional blackmail to exact a bigger slice of Frieda’s time. This is a lot for Frieda to absorb in her personal life while maintaining balance enough to help patients. Here’s Reuben on being burned out as a therapist:
You wouldn’t believe where I’ve gone. You wouldn’t believe the shit that flows through my human brain, and I’ve walked through it up to my neck. Men have told me things about children and women have told me things about their fathers and their uncles, and I don’t know why they didn’t just go out of the room and blow their fucking brains out, and I thought if I went on the journey with them, if I showed them that they weren’t alone, that someone could share it, then maybe they could come back and make something of their lives. And you know what? After thirty years of it, I’ve had it.
Frieda makes a marvellous series character; she’s intense, incredibly mentally tough, a loner, and committed to her job. Her main premise is that her job is “helping people sort the story of their lives. Give them a narrative,” yet in true therapist fashion (and I have a weakness with stories that feature therapists as characters), Frieda is often weighed down with her own problems. There are hints of Frieda’s problems with her mostly invisible family, and she readily admits she’s not sure of her own narrative. But Frieda isn’t the only fascinating character here, and there are plenty of hints that we’re going to see more of Ukrainian Josef, Detective Inspector Yvette Long and her boss, divorced Detective Chief Inspector Malcolm Karlsson. While I guessed two of the plots twists and turns (one of which caused me to become somewhat annoyed with the police investigation), Blue Monday, comparable to the best of Ruth Rendell is full of engaging, sympathetic characters who demand sustained attention, and is an excellent beginning to a new series of page-turning psychological suspense novels. Given the ending, I’d hazard a guess that there’s some unfinished business in this story that will reemerge somewhere in the next seven novels.
Finally here’s a quote from Frieda, an observation on one of her walks which ties in very subtly with the disappearance of a child twenty-two years before and whose traces remain only in the minds of those who loved her:
But Frieda was walking along the course of an old river. She had always been drawn to it. Once it had flowed through fields and orchards down to the Thames. It had been a place for people to sit by, to fish in, What would they have thought, men and women sitting on a summer evening, dangling their feet in the water, if they had seen its future? It had become a rubbish dump, a sewer, a ditch clogged with shit and dead animals and everything else that people couldn’t be bothered to do anything with. Finally it had been built over and forgotten about. How could a river be forgotten about? When she walked this way, Frieda always stopped by a grating where you could still hear the river flowing deep below like an echo of something. And when you had left that behind, you could still walk between the banks rising on either side. Even the occasional street name hinted at the wharves where barges had been unloaded and before that the rises, the grass slopes where people sat and just watched the crystal water flow down into the Thames. That was London. Things built upon things built upon things, each in their turn forgotten about but each somehow leaving a trace, if only a rush of water heard through a grating.