The London described in this book is dark and forbidding, but it also brims with sunny possibilities. Old-town buildings and Victorian closes are encapsulated in “the lazy grip of August” as the sun bleaches most of the color from the city. Nina Bremner, an accomplished artist who paints atmospheric landscapes of Kent, spends the slow, hot weeks walking to and from her artist’s studio, her mind full with color and texture. With her husband, Charles, just landing the “Vienna job,” life for Nina now seems full of possibilities--even as she acknowledges that Emma won’t “stay on her mind for long.”
Nina thinks back to those first weeks of July when she first spied Emma on the other side of the square, stooping and a little harried while reaching out to a toddler. The sensation of finding Emma in front of her after all this time is overwhelmingly powerful, instigating a feeling in Nina like “panic or passion.” Nina is overwhelmed at her own impulsiveness and reckless inability to pass on an opportunity to charm a stranger.
Like silken threads stitched delicately into a menacing, multi-layered quilt, Nina gradually insinuates herself into Emma’s life. We aren’t quite sure why Nina deliberately tries to endanger Emma’s two children, only that her deliberate calculations and her cautious snooping into Emma’s daily, frazzled existence are accented by Sophie, Nina’s demanding, carelessly possessive teenage daughter. There’s also something about Nina’s past that speaks to us and to Emma: Nina’s mother and her philandering father’s separation, how he left the house in Jassop for an appointment in London and never returned. Deadened by years of booze and bitterness, Nina’s mother’s reflections of that time are spotty at best.
Beneath the chaos of crumbs and dirty pots, baby wipes and sleepless nights, Emma is on the brink, ignored by her husband, Ben, who refuses to shoulder his share of the burdens of domestic life. Emma
is “sick of meeting people’s needs and of anticipating unreasonable demands.” Life
is already proving to be stressful enough: there’s the brown stain on the ceiling of young Christopher’s bedroom, the mortgage statements and credit card bills that stalk both her and Ben’s dreams. Emma’s life is full of hesitations and a sense of wanting more. Determined to put some excitement into her existence and hopefully assuage Ben’s hesitations, Emma jumps at the opportunity to bring Nina into her life.
In a story of obsession and quiet revenge, Nina watches Emma. Se can see how she’s feeling, all the tiredness and the loneliness. While Nina almost feels sorry for the young mother, Emma recognizes in Nina a world that she wants. From an offer to babysit, to a grainy collection of photos, to a bracelet from a long-forgotten afternoon, and onto the “Blue Rabbit, Christopher’s beloved toy, Lane builds her drama around the intricacies of Nina‘s revenge. As the more sophisticated and polished Nina stalks Emma, young and unseasoned and uncertain Emma proves to be a ready match.
This isn’t a thriller that hits with the blunt force trauma of Gone Girl but rather something much more subtle and furtive and dark. This is a revenge tale anchored in the minutiae of everyday life. Rich and evocative, the novel is much more literary than your typical mystery thriller. Here simile and metaphor sparkle, a reflection of Nina and Emma’s inner thoughts, two misunderstood women who are glamorous and plaintive, yet unable to move beyond their distracted memories. Nina’s recollections come to her in snatches, only briefly revealed in quiet moments. For Emma, there’s only half or a quarter of a memory: “the teeth of a comb pulled through a girl’s dark and dirty hair and perhaps a blue glass bead winking in the sun.”
Lane wraps her gorgeous prose around her complex protagonists, making the novel sensuous, narcotic, and faintly erotic in a narrative that glimmers like flashes in a fog, with vestiges of relics and ghosts. The emerging theme is how the inability to let go of the past can cause defeat and frustration through our seemingly steadfast lives. Certainly the further Nina and Emma step into each other’s existences,
the more glaring are their inequities and disparities.
As time “sags and screams,” the seductive dual narration gives Emma and Nina more substance than many other female characters in contemporary literary fiction. What makes the book truly gripping, though, is how real and exciting Nina and Emma come to feel due to the rare and lingering intimacy Lane that allows us to share with them.