Tag Archives: domestic thriller

Uncle Paul: Celia Fremlin (1959)

Three sisters under pressure and the vagaries of love and marriage are under examination in Celia Fremlin’s novel, Uncle Paul. Meg is the main character here, and when the novel opens, she receives a telegram from her sister Isabel regarding their older half-sister, Mildred. Isabel is on holiday in Southcliffe with her new-ish husband and her sons from a previous marriage. Mildred, the most troubled sister of the three, is also on holiday, but in Mildred’s case, she’s left her current husband (yet again) and Isabel is worried.

Uncle paul

So it’s Meg to the rescue, but first she asks for advice from her boyfriend Freddie (an Oscar Wilde-ish character who lounges around in a scarlet silk dressing gown and who is the book’s greatest character):

“Quarrel with them,” came the instructions down the wire, decisively. “It’s the only way with families. Quarrel with them now, while you’re still young. If you leave it till you’re older, you’ll find that you owe them all so much money that you can’t afford to. So quarrel, girl, quarrel for your life! And then come round and have a drink. In about half an hour.”

Meg packs up and goes to join Isabel at the seaside. Isabel and her sons are holed up in the grotty family caravan, and Isabel’s hubbie…. well he’s nowhere in sight.

As for Mildred, she booked a holiday rental, a remote cottage which happens to be the same place she stayed 15 years earlier on her honeymoon with Uncle Paul. But the honeymoon went horribly wrong. Paul went to prison, and Mildred went on with her life. Staying at the cottage again brings back painful memories for Mildred, but there’s something else afoot. Has Paul returned and does he seek revenge?

Uncle Paul is a slow burn novel with fear, suspicion and hysteria built slowly, so don’t expect a page-turner. Meg is the sensible, most solid sister, Isabel is scattered and nervous, and Mildred, with her tendency towards drama and self-involvement, is the most unstable of the three. At first, Meg dismisses Mildred’s concerns as yet another play for attention, but after spending a night in the cottage, Meg has cause for alarm.

Author Celia Fremlin juxtaposes the simple, sometimes tedious activities of the day (sitting in the hotel with other guests and playing on the sand with the children) with the nameless fear that awaits in the night. The plot emphasizes how suspicion can undermine even the strongest bonds, and that concern can easily grow into hysteria. There are so many weird things going on in the lives of these sisters; Isabel seems overly anxious about her husband’s imminent arrival, and Meg even begins to question who Freddie really is.

Uncle Paul, a Woman in Peril novel, is a precursor to the extremely popular Domestic Thrillers of today–the books where wives start to question who their husbands really are. Uncle Paul’s strength is its characterizations. I was impressed by how women dominant this story, and how the men, for the most part, are almost entirely absent. There’s some wonderful humour here especially when author Celia Fremlin dabbles with hotel life, the precocious child Cedric and the dapper Captain Cockerill.

I’ll be reading more from this author.

Review copy.

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Filed under Fiction, Fremlin Celia

Disclaimer: Renee Knight

In Disclaimer from Renée Knight, Catherine, a forty-something, married documentary film-maker has just downsized into a maisonette with her husband Robert. Prior to going to sleep one night, she picks up a self-published paperback, A Perfect Stranger and begins to read. Horrified, she realizes that the book tells the story of an incident that occurred years earlier, something she’s deeply ashamed of, and something she thought she’d hidden….

Chapters initially alternate (this changes as Robert is dragged into this drama) between Catherine and another narrator, Stephen Brigstocke, a widowed schoolteacher. I can’t say much more about the plot without revealing too much,  but I will say that chapter two reveals a very disturbed man who’s out for revenge.

disclaimerExactly how these two people are connected : documentary film maker Catherine and the retired teacher is gradually parceled out in small segments of information over the course of the chapters. By about the halfway mark, you know the connection and you also understand it. I have to say that I guessed the connection (not the details) simply by process of elimination and a few clues tossed out there by the author to be picked up and pieced together.

Disclaimer is a domestic thriller of psychological suspense which capitalizes on the fear that something buried in the past will rear up and destroy the present. Early on, we realize that there’s some unspecified rot in Catherine’s marriage to Robert; his role as the supportive husband seems to be long-established as the man who recognizes what Catherine needs before she realises it. There’s a lot of give-and-take there with Robert giving and Catherine taking.

The novel rather cleverly emphasizes that Catherine is more worried about her marriage and her respectable, hard-earned reputation (as a film maker who raises social-consciousness) than she is about the author of The Perfect Stranger who is obviously someone who intends her violence. She’s so terrified that she plays down the danger. Catherine grasps that the story in the book has been fictionalized but she doesn’t perceive the very real threat posed to her–so while she’s worried about her marriage, we readers see the bigger threat barreling straight at her.

Taking the approach of a multiple narrative seems to be a popular approach in domestic crime books these days. This structure certainly provides a framework to move the story and the reader along, but it can also be frustrating and a little false in its delivery. I fall into the latter camp. I became annoyed with the structure and its frank manipulation when it came to parceling out information sometimes placed, it seemed, deliberately to mislead. Others may not feel the same way, and the story certainly is a page turner.

There’s not much more I can say about the book without revealing spoilers, so instead I’ll give a quote.

The whole experience left me with the sensation that I had reached down into a blocked drain and was groping around in the sewage trying to clear it. But there was nothing solid to get hold of. All I felt was soft filth, and it got into my skin and under my fingernails, and its stink invaded my nostrils, clinging to the hairs, soaking up into the tiny blood vessels and polluting my entire system.

I seem to be in the minority opinion about this book as most readers loved it, and here’s a more enthusiastic review from Cleopatra Loves Books.

Review copy

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Filed under Fiction, Knight Renee