The Loving Husband
Christobel Kent
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Buy *The Loving Husband* by Christobel Kentonline

The Loving Husband
Christobel Kent
Sarah Crichton Books
416 pages
March 2017
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Life changes for the worse for Fran Hall when she moves to the bucolic village of Oakenham with her new husband, Nathan, four-year-old Emme, and three-month-old Ben. For one second, Fran’s happy little world blooms as Nathan sleeps beside her in their rambling, isolated farmhouse with its labyrinthine rooms, twisting staircases, and dark secret passages. Fran’s heart clenches in her chest when she recalls her previous life in London, where she worked in magazine publishing and met Nathan after he walked into her friend Jo's crowded kitchen and looked straight at Fran “as if he already knew her.”

Now Nathan lies dead in a ditch not far from the farmhouse. Nathan’s blood “hangs in the air like iron” along with the muddy smell of the waterlogged land. Panicked and upset, “through the welter of mud and cold sweat,” Fran tells DS Doug Gerard and younger DC Ed Carswell what she thinks she’s seen: the brief outline of a man against the headlights, “a man or a scarecrow”--there for a fraction of a second then “swallowed up by the dark” after he came to her window.

With the forensics investigation outside well underway, Carswell and Gerard plant themselves in Fran’s kitchen, trying to piece together Nathan’s final moments as well as any suspects who might have had some axe to grind with him. From ex-lovers to work colleagues and kindly neighbor Rob, all fall under a net of suspicion. Gerard, however, is convinced that Fran’s marriage is a pretense and that she’s still seeing her ex-boyfriend, Nick Jason, who seems to have a checkered past involving illegal drug use. Beyond Oakenham’s flat, watery, and abandoned landscape (which lends an eerie backdrop to the novel), Fran tells the detectives that she never talked to Nathan about Nick, how her relationship with Nick ended, or how she's started looking at her married life through the wrong end of a telescope.

Fran remains a prisoner of her anguish, grief that unfolds in a muddled psychological stew of ghosts that seem to roam the dark and twisted landscape. Fran’s memories of the night clash with her real-world recollections of wifely loyalty. While Fran swears she never talked to Nathan about Nick, or about how it ended, a horrible feeling grows in her belly that she is now on her own, trapped in this cold, the house. Then a flashbulb goes off illuminating what happened last night, almost blinding her. Some of it stands out stark: the policemen in her kitchen, Nathan’s body head-down in the ditch with blood all over him, the blood on the kitchen wall jumping out at her. Fran’s endless nervousness and difficult sense of isolation are contagious. She’s “tangled tight” in what she’s already said, skirting the facts and leaving out things she can’t begin to explain.

Time fractures as the story’s focus wavers between the mystery of Nathan’s past activities, his whereabouts on the night of his demise, Fran’s memories of her life in London, and their fledgling marriage. Nathan walked out across the field to the ditch where someone followed him--or perhaps even waited for him. Ali Compton, the FLO assigned to assist Fran, doesn’t trust Gerard to be objective, and Fran can’t bring herself to divulge her dream of another man to Ali. She certainly can’t confide in Karen, her kindly neighbor who offers to babysit little Emme while Fran is being interviewed by the police. Fran is haunted by the feel of a man’s fingers through the fabric, and then the sex: “all I know is I’d been asleep at least an hour,” then the man’s hand on her waist from behind as he pushed the fabric up to expose her.

While some readers will find the narrative cluttered and too hard to follow, most will sympathize with Fran’s pain and heartbreak and loss. Somewhere along the way, a wrong path is taken, mistakes in judgment are made, then almost out of nowhere appear various subplots and connections. As the novel hurtles towards its (rather anti-climactic) conclusion, Fran is lost in a void of what she considers the right thing to do. There's much angst and clenching of collective teeth among Gerard, Carswell, and Ali over Fran’s presumed guilt. Their real emotion and tirades of anger are at times jarring and startling but do provide a tangible juxtaposition to Fran as she agonizes over life after Nathan: “It had all seemed so right: baby and marriage.”

Fran is certain she’s being stalked by someone, either in the farmhouse or out in the dark flat fields surrounding her. She also has the crazy idea that the man in her bed hadn't been a stranger. Kent’s story of sex, murder, and the betrayal of a not-so-innocent woman who perhaps harbors an agenda of her own explores the power of warped desire. Although the novel often flirts with horror, Kent never sells out to cheap thrills. Her novel is always provocative and chilling, even when the twists and turns of Nathan and Fran’s complex back story are sometimes difficult to grasp.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2017

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