Jewell is a reliable storyteller, though her latest novel is a bit of a mishmash. Juggling three narrative strands with two time periods, Jewell works hard to impart a sense of realism to the situations and to her characters. The plot may have been more effective if it were divided into two separate novels, although it’s refreshingly true-to-life that new Ridinghouse Bay resident Alice Lake isn’t a conventional protagonist. Alice’s outward confidence masks a spiky character trait. She’s something of an oddball with her Brixton accent and dysfunctional family of dogs and kids. She has recently adopted the role of “the enigmatic scary loner” while watching her Alzheimer’s-stricken parents decline, admitting to her best friend, Derry, that she’s prone to making terrible life decisions.
In London, recently married Lily’s husband, Carl Monrose, has gone missing. He failed to come home from work, and Lily can no longer reach him on his phone. Filled with blind, raging impotence, Lily fears that something terrible has happened. She knows little about her new husband, apart from the fact that he has a mother and a friend called Russ who works with him in Financial Services. Lily is terrified that Carl has met his end under the wheels of a bus, been left for dead on an underpass, or is floating face down in the dark water of the Thames.
Back in Ridinghouse Bay, Alice meets a man sitting by the seawall who has lost his memory and doesn’t even know his own name. Alice takes pity on him and offers to let him spend the night with her loud, rude children and three untrained dogs. Soon, however, Alice starts to doubt her decision, wondering why this man (who she’s named Frank) is suddenly in her house. Distractingly handsome, Frank says that he has amnesia brought on by emotional trauma. When Alice suggests taking him to the police station, Frank experiences a terrible dark wave of doom and a sense that something, somewhere is horribly broken and that there is nothing he can do to fix it.
From cosmopolitan London to windswept Ridinghouse Bay, the setting is ripe for complications, secrets, and revelations, though it is far easier to disregard the unlikely plot twists as the mystery unfolds. Lily encounters the shock after WPC Travis runs Carl’s passport through the system. For his part, Frank begins to sense flashes of bright whiteness, “like the ricochet of sunlight of a passing car,” that momentarily blind and unbalance him. He knows pieces of the jigsaw, if he could only see them, but he needs to find the thing that has brought him to the edge of this northern seaside town.
The clues will be found back in 1993, when Pam and Tony and their two teenage children, Gray and Kirsty, rent ramshackle Rabbit Cottage. The house becomes ground zero for the family’s encounter with Mark Croydon. Mark is Kirsty’s provocateur, becoming the catalyst for much of the violence that will ricochet into present-day events. Something about Croydon sets Gray’s alarm bells ringing. Perhaps it’s his carefully combed, set hair and his unlikely bond with his “glacially grieving aunt,” as well as the precocious talk of becoming a millionaire. Gray feels a surge of awful fear rise through him, a “strange mix of disgust and tenderness”—revulsion for Mark when he seems him trying to seduce innocent Kirsty, and tenderness for his little sister who, seems to be incapable of rebuffing Croydon’s malevolent advances.
Hopping between time periods with a sustained sense of menace, the novel is unsettling and menacing without seeming to try too hard, fast-paced and tense with fairly interesting characters. Alice is trying to overcome her baggage, including turning her back on a fairly scattershot life. She’s rather aimless until she meets Frank and realizes that what she really needs is a man in her life. Lily is feisty and smart but sometimes comes across as a clichéd vulnerable immigrant. Gray, the elder brother, is resourceful and likable. Mark is completely and unquestionably evil. Handsome Frank remains the catalyst; all of the other characters’ stories are capriciously triggered because of the tragedy once inflicted upon him.
Like other contemporary mystery writers, Jewell weaves her tale around people living on edge, clinging to life’s outer rim. In her colorful Ridinghouse Bay setting, a series of wobbly connections are precariously linked by amnesia, conspiracies, a deserted mansion, and murder. While the crux of the plot is whether or not Carl and Frank are the same person, the hint of childhood trauma becomes a smokescreen for a case of concealed identity and a far more sinister, deadly 30-year coverup.