A couple of pages into Kelly’s new thriller, I was ready to break out into a cold sweat. Utilizing her trademark talent for suspense, Kelly describes the events leading up to a pivotal court case in which the accused, Jamie Balcombe, has been skulking away in the shadows. Jamie’s accuser, Beth Taylor, has been keeping her beady eyes on Laura, the novel’s narrator. Inundated with bouts of anxiety and paranoia, Laura is convinced that Beth is still ever-present in her life even as she’s focused on trying save her own skin and that of her husband, Kit, a dedicated astronomer who has spent his career traveling the world in order to study solar eclipses.
Time and place in Kelly’s novel become powerful and distorted. Laura is vulnerable and also a little reckless. She remembers the Lizard Point festival in Cornwall in 1999, where an impending solar eclipse led the revelers to paint their bodies and faces “while whirling and howling at the moon.” The eclipse might have brought her closer to Kit, but it also acted as a catalyst for their meeting with Beth. After witnessing Beth’s brutal rape by Jamie Balcombe, Kit and Laura are unceremoniously lured into Beth’s mysterious orbit. Beyond a scratchy combination of sympathy and fear, Laura is haunted by flashbacks, like “a time lapse film” from the moment she and Kit first encountered Jamie heaving behind Beth in the dark gray Cornwall field.
Back in 2015 London, a heavily pregnant Laura looks out over the suburban rooftops dominated by Alexandra Palace. She views Jamie’s brutal rape of Beth as a metaphor for her own unsustainable existence. We aren’t quite sure why Laura is on edge, why there’s no paper trail for her and Kit’s previous life. We do know that Laura is desperate to quell her pre-trip nerves. Kit is about to undertake his first solo trip to view a solar eclipse on a journey far across the North Sea to Faroe Islands. Visions of Jamie’s sexual violence and Beth’s harassment remain fresh in Laura’s mind in what shapes up to be four days’ worth of mood swings and paranoia, and the endless grisly speculation that Beth will somehow be able to follow Kit to Faroe.
Chapters move back and forth between Laura and Kit’s perspective and between 2015 and the events of 1999, when Jamie was ultimately charged with rape, and Beth--an accomplished manipulator--embarked down a path of obsession, attempting to circumnavigate her way into Kit and Beth’s lives: “I put myself on the line for her, until the night I challenged Beth I was the only one who had never said the wrong thing, as far as she was concerned the person she trusted most in the world first betrayed her and then vanished.”
Kit has spent the last 14 years protecting his wife against the fallout at Lizard Point. “The defining event of my life is the defining even of Laura’s. I’ve lost the carefree girl I first knew, and she’s lost the boy with the brilliant future.” Against his better judgment, he decides to go on his trip, figuring that he’s got the rest of his life to play “the provident father.” He’s checked the passenger records, and Beth Taylor is not on the list. While Kit’s recovering alcoholic brother, Mac, lives just around the corner, and Laura’s best friend, Ling, is just two streets away, Kit is hesitant to leave his pregnant, over-medicated wife to travel across the sea where there is a chance the woman who nearly destroyed them will be waiting for him.
Setting her story in London, Cornwall, and the Faroes Islands, Kelly uses the metaphor of the solar eclipse to explore the pall cast over our lives when we peddle in tragic deceits. Kit and Laura’s secrets causes one more catastrophic slipup. From Beth’s rape to Jamie’s court case, furious, seductive Jamie goes on the warpath, determined to prove that he was wrongly convicted and that both Beth and her star witness, Laura, lied at the trial. Laura discovers that only she, apart from Beth, can overturn Jamie’s conviction. The “white lie” she tells in court leads Laura to question whether Jamie was actually guilty. As the physical consequences of Jamie’s taunts hang over Laura--perjury, possibly the perversion of the course of justice and contempt of court--Kelly focuses on the machinations of duplicitous Beth, who after the rape, seems determined to cut the world adrift by terrorizing Laura and Kit.
Shrouded in issues of a flawed criminal justice system, Kelly’s story seems to work best when it fuses the ghosts of Kit and Laura’s younger selves to the salacious origins of Beth’s true motivations. Despite the telegraphed plot twists and the long narrative, Kelly delivers on what really happens to a woman when she is raped: the invasive procedure, the ignominy, the perceived shame, and the guilt she feels in a society that uses wealth, privilege, and the media, to turn a deaf ear to her often-silent pleas for help.