Tag Archives: domestic thriller

The Hours Before Dawn: Celia Fremlin (1958)

Celia Fremlin’s Uncle Paul explores the relationships between sisters, a past crime and a threat in the present. The Hours Before Dawn is the story of a young mother, Louise Henderson, who is so overwhelmed by motherhood, nosy, nasty neighbours, and a critical husband that she ignores the warning signs about her new tenant.

the hours before dawn

Louise has two little girls and a baby boy named Michael. The novel opens with Louise saying:

I’d give ANYTHING-anything-for a night’s sleep.

Louise is so sleep deprived that she even nods off in the waiting room before the baby’s checkup. She tries to tell the nurse that she can’t get the baby to sleep at night; she’s probably hoping for advice, but all she gets is a disinterested, patronizing woman who doesn’t want to hear complaints.

And the patience in Nurse Fordham’s voice was like the swell of the sea, in which a thousand boats can sink unnoticed.

“You see, Mrs. Henderson,” she was explaining, choosing her words carefully, as if Louise could understand human speech little better than the writhing baby in her arms–“you see, as I’m always telling you mothers, you mustn’t worry. He’s gaining splendidly–

Poor Louise. Her husband, Mark, comes home expecting cooked meals (including cooked lunches) and a clean calm house. It doesn’t occur to him to pitch in and instead he complains constantly telling her to keep the children quiet. One of the neighbours hints that she might take her concerns about Louise’s capability as a mother further, and Mark’s mother makes it clear she’s not lending a hand. According to Louise’s mother-in-law, “the most wonderful moment in a woman’s life is when her last child clears off and leaves her free.”

Amidst all the domestic chaos, the sleepless nights, and a husband who acts like the kids are nothing to do with him (I wanted to smack him upside the head), Louise rents out a spare room to a single woman. The new tenant is a schoolteacher named Vera Brandon. It occurs to Louise that there’s something off about Vera Brandon. She’s a little too old and successful to be renting a room, “not at all the sort of person whom one would expect to choose for her home an inconvenient, ill-equipped attic in someone else’s house.” Why would anyone want to rent a room in a house when the baby cries and fusses all night long–especially if the prospective tenant has options? While the warning signs flash in the periphery of Louise’s brain, she’s overwhelmed, living in perpetual distraction and exhaustion so doesn’t act on her instinct.

This is a domestic crime novel published in 1958 long before the genre became popular. While some novels rely on glamour to whip up the plot, The Hours Before Dawn (the title makes me think of an execution) concentrates on Louise’s life and her isolation in domestic hell. The claustrophobic nature of the plot is alleviated with humour–mostly found in the other characters who either commiserate with Louise or condemn her. She forms a relationship (and I’m using the term loosely here ) with another  mother, the delinquent Mrs Hooper. Mrs Hooper, who believes in letting her children be ‘independent,’  frequently dumps her neglected children (Christine and Tony) on Louise, and Louise can’t say ‘no.’ Louise finds that she likes Mrs. Hooper but can’t quite articulate why.

“Hullo-I thought you were in such a hurry to get to your pottery class,” remarked Louise. “Look-can you get your pram out first? No, -Turn it a bit sideways-that’s right.”

A violent jolt form her mother’s rather heavy-handed manoeuvres sent Christine’s cauliflower bouncing on to the gravel, and her shrill, peevish wail silenced further conversation until the cauliflower, rather battered by now, had been restored.

“I always think that’s such a natural way for them to get their vitamins,” beamed Mrs Hooper, as a muddy, mangled bit of stalk dangled from Christine’s mouth on to her knitted jacket. “She got it all by herself. you know, out of the end of the pram. When Tony was a baby, I always used to let him help himself to the shopping on the way home. I remember once he got hold of a mutton chop. Raw. People were terribly shocked,” she added wistfully, with the far-way look of one recalling past triumphs. 

The novel is its strongest in the depth of the domestic details of Louise’s life as she tries to cope with constant criticism, no help and very little sleep. The crime element of the plot is not shabby either–after all we’ve all read stories of similar sorts of things happening. But it’s the claustrophobia and Louise’s desperation that rings true here.

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Filed under Fiction, Fremlin Celia

The House Swap: Rebecca Fleet

I liked the premise of Rebecca Fleet’s The House Swap. We live in a world that’s changed a great deal in the last few decades: the internet makes the globe smaller in some ways and also much more dangerous. Through the story of a troubled marriage, The House Swap shows the ease with people can elbow into our lives.

The House Swap

The novel opens in 2015 with Caroline and Francis, a married couple, parents of a small boy, traveling to Chiswick on a house-swap arrangement. Caroline signed onto a house swap site “on an idle whim,” but then was contacted by an S. Kennedy who expressed interest in swapping a Chiswick house for the couple’s flat in Leeds. Francis had wanted to go abroad, but Caroline nixed that due to concerns about leaving their son. So the book finds the couple, who’ve left the child with a grandmother, a bit combative and miffed with each other. Chiswick seems a poor exchange for Paris or Spain.

The truth underneath the choice of location is that neither Caroline nor Francis have the energy to rustle up a holiday that requires much planning. You see, their marriage is on the rocks. Caroline has been a bad girl, but their marriage has survived the affair. Sort of….

Not in the best of moods, the couple arrive at the Chiswick house. Caroline finds the house a bit odd.

It’s the emptiest house I have ever seen. Nothing on the walls, not even a mirror. Pale pine floorboards and smooth blank doors opening into near vacant rooms. 

Weird, weird weird…. But then things get weirder when Caroline finds items in the house that remind her of her former lover, and what of the nosy, pushy neighbour a few doors down.

The story goes back and forth in time through a few different voices, while the background of Caroline’s affair and her marriage to Francis unfolds. Francis is a therapist, and gradually we see what a wreck Francis is, his unhealthy behaviours and exactly what pushed Caroline towards another man. Against this backstory, events in the past also occur which trouble Caroline in the present; she’s tried shoving thoughts of the affair into the back of her mind, but the Chiswick house brings memories flooding back.

This is a domestic thriller about two married people who had a lot going for them but threw it away, and now the consequences are there, back in their lives in spite of their best efforts otherwise. The characters are not likable (which is often a plus for me) but they were also not terribly interesting. Caroline ‘wakes up’ too slowly IMO, but the novel is stronger when showing that when a marriage is wrecked, the pieces never fit together again…

Here’s another review at Cleopatra Loves Books.

review copy.

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Filed under Blogging, Fleet Rebecca

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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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