First-time novelist Renee Knight crafts a uniquely-plotted thriller that conceals truth behind a fictionalized novel--A Perfect Stranger--a book that strikes a chord of recognition in Catherine Ravenscroft, initiating the slow unraveling of a secret with the power to destroy everything she has worked for in the last two decades. Spooling out her tale in two alternating narratives
(one in 2013, the other in 2011), Knight sets the stage for a conflict that emphasizes the subjectivity of perception, the devastating effects of grief, and a woman’s spontaneous decision to bury a terrible secret in the past, where it can no longer hurt her: “She hadn’t realized that doing nothing would be such a deadly omission.”
Catherine Ravenscroft is a successful documentary filmmaker, married to Robert
and mother of Nicholas, a young man who has struggled with drugs and enjoyed only marginal success in sales, recently on his own with other housemates. Catherine and Robert are in the process of scaling down their lives in 2013,
just moved to a two-bedroom condo after selling the family home and pushing their son from the nest. Still sorting through boxes of belongings, Catherine receives the anonymously-posted novel that leaves her wide-eyed beside her sleeping husband.
Morning offers no respite from the knowledge that someone has written her story, exposed her secret. Her attempts to tell Robert what happened so long ago have proved impossible, unbearably difficult after so many years, Catherine covering her behavior with plausible explanations. She retreats to work, terrified that her husband will somehow learn what she has so carefully hidden.
In 2011, elderly Stephen Brigstocke is unable to relinquish his dead wife, Nancy, to the past and move on,
only years later emptying the house of her clothing and personal belongings. He
clings to his memories of their time together, more comfortable in the past with Nancy than the present. Only a few items reinforce the images of happier days, a worn knitted cloche, a cashmere cardigan she had since the birth of their son, Jonathan, and wore while writing, an avocation they shared. It is while sorting through clothing to give to a charity shop that Stephen stumbles on a hidden purse that contains an envelope of photographs and a silver key, the beginning of his devastating realization that Nancy hadn’t really shared everything with him--that
she had, in fact, been keeping her own counsel, thoughts written in private notebooks.
A visit to Jonathan’s apartment, a long-neglected flat filled with Nancy’s decorative touches, holds a second shock for Stephen and another discovery, his introduction into territory of which he was blithely unaware, the beginning of his obsession to restore his dead wife’s happiness. Stephen, in his quest, has found a reason to forge ahead, a mission to give his lonely life meaning.
He is fearless as he embraces the confusing landscape of modern technology, the stuffy rooms of a home locked against the passage of time and the blustering world outside in sharp contrast for a man mired in the comforts of what is lost, now venturing into a contemporary environment.
Knight manipulates the balance between Catherine’s bitter denouement--the potential loss of everything valuable to her, family, career, reputation--and Brigstocke’s actions in a present suddenly made relevant. Catherine’s behavior
is an enigma, a pastiche of lies gradually stripped away, a woman at odds with husband, son, coworkers; on the other hand, Brigstocke grows in strength, empowered by certainty
and armed with the tools to exorcise his demons. The result is an unexpectedly fascinating thriller of psychological twists that proves the inherent flaws of impulsive decisions and the subject perspectives of others in a society quick to judge. Disclaimer reveals the ugly underbelly of a culture grown comfortable in judging others with insufficient information, easily bored and oblivious to the destruction that ensues.