Tag Archives: British domestic suspense

The Innocent Party: Celia Dale (1973)

“The magazines just showed how everyone wished it could be.”

Celia Dale’s brilliant novel, The Innocent Party, explores the life of Linda Dalton, the only child of travelling salesman, Den, and his wife, Vera. With Vera “against outsiders,” and disliking her neighbours, Linda doesn’t have close friends. At school she “ran on the edge of the herd.” The Daltons live in a messy high rise London flat, and Linda waits for the days when her father returns home from his trips. Vera, however, clearly dreads the return of her husband. When Den is gone, which is about half the time, Vera’s mother, the widowed, pragmatic Nanna visits a lot, but when Den comes home, everything changes. It’s as though the flat shrinks:

There had to be more food, more solid, and so more crockery and pans, more time cooking it. His voice was louder, he sang as he shaved and squirted deodorant into his hairy armpits, slapped after-shave on his chin and examined himself for jowls and blackheads. He bought the evening papers to see the results and left them stuffed into the corners of the settee, He smacked Mum’s behind, tweaked her tits, took her out to the pictures, the pub, the Club on Saturday evenings, bought her black underwear, lay in Sundays, thrashed and snored and groaned through the wall into Linda’s sleep, drank three cups of tea in the morning and left a smell in the toilet.

Den always makes a fuss of Linda his “Buttercup,” and she’s in “rapture” when he arrives home. While she worships her father, Linda has a problematic relationship with her mother. Without understanding the deeper ramifications and causes of the chasm between her parents, Linda learns to work the marital discord to her advantage. Yet at the same time, Linda is an unwitting pawn in sexual politics.

Linda watched Mum growing more irritable, smoking more, her face peaked. Dad, who started the week his usual cheerful self, soon grew sour too, coming home from work and giving Mum a hug but being pushed off, answered crossly; so he would turn to Linda, cuddle her to him, let her sit on his lap although they knew Mum didn’t like it, say “Here’s someone who’s glad to see me anyway,” call her his girl, his Lindylou, Cindy-lindy, tickle her and tease her, holding her wrists while she tried to tickle him back as she wriggled and giggled on his hard lap, helpless and hot and doting, till Mum at last would say sharply “That’s enough of that” and take her arm and pull her off quite roughly and he would let her go, just staying there in the chair all spread out and laughing and look up at Mum in a way that made Linda sense their romping had been used for something else.

While the novel is written in the third person, we see things mainly from Linda’s point of view. It’s a limited view as, when the novel opens, Linda is 11, but she’s all too aware that a world of violence exists outside of her front door. But what if the violence is in their home too?

Underneath the plot runs a rancid river of sexuality: Den who is “only human,” constantly bullies his wife into sex, and Vera isn’t allowed to refuse. The only girl at school Linda talks to, Marilyn, openly talks about her abusive father who demands sex from his wife post beatings. Girls at school are “in the club,” “the boys wheeled and bellowed like young bulls.” Linda is 11 and doesn’t fully understand the violence that can accompany sex, but she witnesses it and absorbs it nonetheless. She plays with sexual power without being cognizant of the ramifications. Linda is, at first at least, the ‘innocent party,’ but as she grows up with awful knowledge about her parents, her relationship with her father is increasingly warped. Celia Dale weaves a powerful, dark tale, and cleverly allows the reader slivers of adult reality–the reality that Linda doesn’t understand. This is the best Celia Dale novel I’ve read so far.

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The Younger Wife: Sally Hepworth

Sally Hepworth’s domestic suspense novel, The Younger Wife, begins with the wedding of Melbourne-based heart surgeon, Stephen Aston, a man in his 60s and Heather, a 30-something interior designer. It’s a big wedding, with Stephen’s two daughters, Tully and Rachel in attendance. The groom is old enough to be the bride’s father … well it’s an old story. But wait … there’s something really odd about this wedding. Stephen’s ex-wife, Pamela, is also a guest. Stephen insists that even though Pamela and he are divorced, she should attend as she’s still family. Pamela, by the way, is living in a care home with dementia. Backstory: Heather was hired for home renovations by Stephen and Pamela when they were still married. Shortly after Stephen met Heather, he put Pamela in a care home. A month after moving Pamela into the care home, he filed for divorce and announced his upcoming marriage to Heather. Alarm bells were going off in my head with this information. And I’m not the only one. Most of the guests feel uneasy about Pamela’s presence, and this unease is proved warranted when something goes horribly wrong. …

The novel segues to a restaurant dinner organized by Stephen. He invites his daughters Tully and Rachel and, there he introduces Heather as his fiancée. Tully and Heather are floored. They are still adjusting to the relocation of their mother to a nursing home, and they had no idea their dad was even dating. Tully’s first reaction to Heather is to assume she’s going to “destroy their lives.” Rachel plays a cooler hand, but both young women struggle to adjust to the news.

Under different circumstances, Rachel might have felt pleasure at this meeting. For example, if her father had started dating someone after mum died. A nice widow named Beryl, perhaps

The story moves from Stephen’s announcement up to the wedding. While both Rachel and Tully try to adjust to the news that they are shortly to have a young stepmum, both young women face other challenges in their lives. Rachel, who runs a bakery business from her home, discovers mysterious contents in her mother’s hot water bottle. Tully, who lives in one of the most prestigious neighborhoods in Melbourne, faces an uncertain future. Both sisters have ‘issues;’ Rachel, who doesn’t date, has never dated, tends to eat her feelings, and Tully has picked up a nasty little habit since she was 11. Rachel, unsettled by the news of the wedding combined with the contents of the water bottle, tries to ask her mother some questions, but it’s a roll of the dice when it comes to whether or not Pamela will recognize her children. As events roll on, Rachel and Tully begin to question every thing they know about their parents.

All the characters have secrets, and all of those secrets will be uncovered by the time the book ends. The story unfolds through the voices of an (initially) unnamed woman, Heather, Tully and Rachel. The Younger Wife is a page turner. I liked the relationship between the very different sisters. Yet while this story is highly readable, I had some issues with a couple of things. 1) Tully’s husband, Sonny, makes a MAJOR mistake (no spoilers) but Tully basically shrugs and that’s that. Of course, underneath Tully’s acceptance and nonchalance, it’s NOT ok, and this is evident by her later stressed out, self-destructive behaviour. Sonny is appalled by his wife’s behaviour, and Tully waits for the lightening to fall. But wait…. Sonny isn’t called to account for his actions.

2) Another issue I had was with the character of Heather. The choices she makes after one particular incident pushed credulity over the edge. Can’t say more than that without spoilers. One’s past makes one more vulnerable in certain situations and to certain relationships, I get that, and I agree, BUT when the evidence is irrefutable … c’mon. What sort of idiot accepts PILLS after YOU KNOW what the truth is? Heather’s behaviour makes her … well either NOT a credible character or not the sharpest tool in the toolbox (yes even taking her past into consideration.) Still, in spite of these flaws, I liked the way the author showed that the ideal family is sometimes rotten to the core. It takes being inside that family to know the truth.

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People Like Her: Ellery Lloyd

“She has always had a fairly complicated relationship with the truth, my wife.”

I’m one of those people who find most social media weird. Don’t get me wrong; the internet is a wonderful tool, but spending hours on social media …. I just don’t get it. Reality TV, which really should be called ‘Manufactured TV,’ is one thing if it’s limited to competitions of one sort or another, but let’s face it, the minute you stick someone in front of a camera or put them on public display, what they do and say is going to change. That’s human nature for you. And that brings me to the more complex manifestations of social media … that most bizarre time-sucking phenomenon. IMO it’s bizarre to put your life on public display and also IMO it’s inevitably going to warp your life, and the lives of the people you care about, if you Vlog your daily life.

Ellery Lloyd’s suspense novel, People Like Her, is the story of a highly successful product influencer, Instagram phenomenon, Emily Jackson (Instamum aka ‘Mamabare’) whose schtick is that motherhood is chaos, sleepless nights, messy hair, and a house that looks like it’s been burglarized. Of course this is just the sales pitch that has attracted over a million followers to her Instagram account. But the face that Emily presents to the world is very carefully sculptured, a product of very deliberate, studied marketing. The novel unfolds through three very distinct voices: Emily, Dan, Emily’s writer husband, and a stalker who has an ax to grind with Emily. Poor Dan really has no idea of what he’s dealing with when it comes to the Mrs.

It turns out that each country has its own quirks when it comes to Instagram parenting. Id been taking my cues from the American moms I admired, who all waft about in cashmere, keep their Carrara marble worktops pristine, dress their kids in plaid shirts and designer denim, and run everything through the Gingham filter to give their photos a subtle vintage effect. A little more googling uncovered that Australia’s lithe, free-spirted mamas all pose against surfboards in crochet bikinis, with their salt-scrunched hair and their tanned blond toddlers. Swedish Instamums wear flower crowns while they coo at babies lying around in grey felt bonnets on paste washed-linen sheets.

You see, with a bit of research, social media makes understanding what people all over the world connect with very simple indeed.

Emily prides herself on her ‘brand’ which she states she “built on honesty, and I’ll always tell it like it is.” Emily knows that for Instagram success, you cannot show maternal competence or organization: “you have to be unable to leave the house without at least a splotch of Bolognese or a splatter of baby puke on your shirt.” Now Emily happens to be extremely competent, an incredible planner and organizer and so the persona she creates for Instagram is a performance. Meanwhile Dan feels overwhelmed by Emily’s Instagram life which has managed, by its demands, to cannibalize his writing career. The fun here is the sheer nastiness of it all: the way Emily manipulates her followers, the way she orchestrates their home to be flooded with free goods whenever she publicly mentions needing a product, and the way it begins to dawn on Dan that he has no idea who his wife really is. Emily has many wonderful characteristics, but put her behind an Instagram account and the humans in her life become accessories to her image. There’s one brilliant section in which Dan goes to answer the doorbell early one morning only to discover that his wife has an interview (of course he knew nothing about it and was totally unprepared) and Emily, the puppetmaster deliberately trashed her house and kept her husband out-of-the-loop to add to the sense of domestic chaos. The book skewers social media, its supreme superficiality, and how people become so addicted to snaring followers and gathering ‘likes’ they sacrifice the very real flesh-and-blood human beings in their lives. While the book adds nothing new to the dangers of stalking and the hazards of putting one’s detailed personal life on social media, the nastiness makes for entertainment.

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