There's a telltale heart in Kate Parker’s East Oxford house, and it’s living in the attached house, lodged in a hole in the wall behind the wardrobe in her son Jack’s bedroom. Inside lives a creepy, Goth-like neighbor who purports to be student and is intent on sabotaging the careful, flimsy life that Kate has been trying to rebuild. Kate hopes that every cloud will have a silver lining and every cad a gaping wound as she fanatically tries to reassure an increasingly worried Jack that everything will be fine.
In this unusual British thriller, Millar posits Kate’s fearful dilemma and a life that until now has been dominated by the traumatic days of crippling paranoia and nights of emotional scarring in the aftermath of her husband Hugo’s violent death in their London Highgate house five years earlier. Pivotal to how Kate (and Jack) are handling life so far are her in-laws—Helen and real-estate investor Richard—who worry about Kate’s suitability for her precious boy, a notion reinforced by Hugo’s sister, Saskia, who thinks Kate is going crazy.
Bucolic Oxford may be bathed in a pale-lemon tint, but it cannot alleviate the tense atmosphere as Helen and Richard force their way in and taken their places in Kate and Jack’s lives. Not to worry—there are plenty of other monsters left in the world, a notion not lost on Kate as she tries to calm her fears and her obsession with “accidental death.” Cycling through the streets of Downtown, Kate is consumed by obsessive-compulsive disorder and an overwhelming anxiety that hits her like a wave.
Although any reader who’s paying attention can see every plot twist coming, Millar’s tale is a sharp, thoughtful read, a sneaky wolf that bursts from the Oxford woods and morphs into a darker and less whimsical tale where more seems to be hidden than revealed. Millar provides a rescue for Kate in the form of Jago Martin, a Scottish university professor reeling from a suddenly broken relationship. Jago has written a book about how people can try to gain a sense of self control over their lives by using statistics to do with safety and health.
Living with the constant fear of imagined accidents and a buzzing inside her ears that sometimes becomes a collective pitch, Kate turns to Jago. He tries to give her a glimpse of the future and remind her what it’s actually like to feel alive. Perhaps Jago’s familiar warmth and humor can finally unlock Kate’s anxieties. Nonetheless, Kate can’t escape Jack’s beseeching eyes as she plays the part of the widow ever haunted by the murder of her Hugo, “the memory of violence, a flash, silver and sharp.”
The “weirdo from next door” towers above Saskia, his pale, husky eyes staring from behind greasy glasses. In London, “a place of ghosts, and memories that had rotted like old fruit,” Kate is again forced into Jago’s orbit as she embarks on a mission to stop her from turning even more into a nervous wreck. Fragile, frightened Jack has to rely on his friends because his mother is so messed up and lost; he says grown-up things in a “voice that was all wobbly and confused and hurt.”
Millar can't resist wrapping up her story lines with a twist that will probably feel too shiny and neat for some. But you don't need a husband or a secret to feel for Kate and Jack’s real moral quandaries. Millar catches us up in the complex puzzle of Jago’s motives, at the same time making us feel Kate’s bereavement. While Jago is the ideal of a macho male—powerful, seductive and ultimately unstoppable—Kate is the true sympathetic figure as she fends off a cold-blooded killer intent on revenge and destruction.