The Crooked House
Christobel Kent
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Buy *The Crooked House* by Christobel Kentonline

The Crooked House
Christobel Kent
Sarah Crichton Books
368 pages
January 2016
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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In unique prose, Kent combines the present and the past with the life of her chief protagonist, Alison Grace, who works in London as an accountant for an independent publishing house. Alison has been living in the City for about four years when Paul, her current boyfriend, invites her to Saltleigh to attend the wedding of his ex-girlfriend, Morgan Carter. The gold-edged invitation, however, gives little comfort to Alison, who begins to exhibit a strange nervousness, perhaps caused by Paul’s natural reticence and by the panic that comes over her when he asks about her family. Even as Alison tells Paul the story that her parents are dead, that she grew up in Cornwall as an only child looked after by kindly Aunt Polly, the memories gradually flood back of her early life in Saltleigh, where she was called Esme and witnessed the murder of her family while she hid in her upstairs bedroom.

Slaughtered were her twin sisters, Mads and Letty, her teenage brother, Joe, and her mother, dead on the floor in her best skirt. Her father, John Grace, barely survived. Now unable to walk or talk, he was blamed for crime. Alison still remembers that tragic night--the loud BOOM of the shotgun and the blood that soaked half the oval hall carpet. As much as Alison has tried to distance herself from the past, Esme is still buried out there somewhere, or even wandering out on the marsh. Morgan’s invitation and Paul’s quiet insistence jumpstart Alison’s dreams of the marsh, the wide expanse of mud, the little Saxon church, the diesel and rope and wood.

Determined to maintain the status quo that she has assumed for life with Paul, Alison is caught in a bind. Her need to forget that she was Esme is further exacerbated when she decides to return to Saltleigh. Staying at an old Victorian Road house called The Queen’s Head, Alison’s ribcage squeezes with fear. Her only comfort is the notion that no one--including Paul--knows her true identity. Thus begins the careful dissecting of Alison/Esme’s memories and the slow dance to find the real killer, which at first puts Alison at odds with local police detective Sarah Rutherford, who tells her not to have any false hope: “He did it. No doubt.” Even as Sarah promises to give Alison access to the files that relate directly to her, she remembers Alison as Esme, a frightened teenager who said nothing and stayed stubbornly silent while something dark and predatory drifted off into that cold summer night.

Skillfully manipulating her phrases with a frenetic stream-of-consciousness style, Kent excavates deep into Alison’s psyche and what she sees and hears around her. From London, where Alison’s best friend, Kay, warns her about Morgan Carter, to her first days back in Saltleigh, to her memories of that terrible night in the family home of the crooked house, Alison sees the estuary, a place on the edge of nowhere where the barges moor and where local drunk Stephen Bray might just be able to tell her what really happened. Images and pictures come thick and fast, names and places all returning, “stepping up to Alison out of the darkness.” She thought she’d wiped them all from her conscious mind, but deep down, the estuary and “the village constantly stirs and whispers,” reminding Alison of her dark and splintered past.

Like pawns on a chessboard, Kent boldly teases readers, pushing and pulling the facts around until they arrange themselves in such a clever way. Like Alison, we too find ourselves going back to the beginning and wondering what we might have missed. The first in Alison’s series of clues is some obscure “clockwork of memory” that goes unacknowledged, the fractured thoughts of her father’s bloody face side-on on the rug without his glasses. Like “a scrap yard in the dark, full of sharp things,” Esme’s memory coincides with an influx of local characters: Morgan’s wealthy parents, Lucy and Roger Carter, who steamroll through life with a greedy energy; Saltleigh’s matriarch, Cathy Watts, old and bent with three sons--Danny, Martin, and youngest child Joshua, a beautiful boy who was killed in a hit-and-run on the night of the slaughter; Frank Marshall, who blamed Esme’s father for his house fire and later topped himself; golden boy Simon Chatwin, who had been out on the cold marsh on that night but now barely has the energy to roll a cigarette; and Gina, Alison’s childhood friend whose infant daughter may belong to Simon or even to her brother, Joe Grace. Somehow, these disparate individuals are connected by at least one common thread: the network of elaborate lies constructed by the community in order to hide the real identity of the killer.

The gothic elements as well as the marshland setting add a fabulous tension to the story, which in turn increases Alison’s mix of suspicion and mistrust of Paul’s romantic connection to Morgan. Morgan revels in making her archrival feel as uncomfortable as she can. Alison wants absolution even if she doesn’t quite know what it’s for, except for being her mother’s daughter and for vindicating her father, who the town still remembers as “the drunk and the madman.” Then there’s Gina, who for reasons of her own is not in the business of forgiving anybody, least of all Alison.

Between two nights joined by violence, threats seem to be everywhere. Alison embarks on a downward ride though the village with its shadows and its half-whispers, journeying out along the final path towards the tumbling-down crooked house of her childhood with its scent of blood and its damage and its death. Through the maze of her heady, intoxicating prose, Kent has written a terrific thriller whose heroine’s blackness is like ink, steeped in grief, rage, and madness.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2016

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