Nick Skinner is the millionaire master of an imploding financial universe whose whimsical drive for a life of privilege involves entire days enclosed in his London office.
His beautiful wife, Bryony, runs her super-successful financial advisory agency from the salubrious digs of 97 Holland Park Crescent. From the outset,
author Fiona Neill makes it clear that the Skinners’ lives are an exercise in constant energy, most characterized by
a glacial forward glide that lulls even as it disconcerts.
story unfolds through the eyes of the Skinners' nanny, Ali Sparrow, an impoverished English literature student from Cromer, Norfolk.
Ali has for the past few years been looking after twins Alfie and Hector and the two older children, Izzy and Jake. All have participated in a stellar trajectory that ends up shattered by the financial crisis in 2008. The story of the weeks leading up to the crash and Nick’s rumored part in it is
told by Ali, who has learned to love this wealthy family, idiosyncrasies and all.
Bright and endlessly curious, Ali's narrative assembles a patchwork of personal observations as she unwittingly becomes immersed in a story that captures the national mood. “I’m just the loyal nanny they’re not really interested in me,” Ali tells the reporters, her first line of defense and as close to the truth as she dares go. For a girl used to being the “keeper of other people’s secrets,” Ali is
no longer an innocent bystander but considered "fair game" by the media circus
that descends on Holland Park Crescent, looking for blood over Nick’s sudden “disappearing act."
This is a world where notoriety lends a certain cachet. The Skinners--the subject of so much of Ali’s point of view--get a satiric treatment that
is more sweet and sympathetic than sour. Amid talk of the liquidity crisis, we learn of Bryony’s thousand-pound dresses, clothes wrapped in tissue paper never to be used, and holidays on Corfu. Bryony makes it clear to Ali that she wears her lack of domestic skills as “a badge of feminist honor."
Her biggest chore will be deciding what to wear and who not to invite to her ostentatious fundraising parties.
The novel progresses with an air of doom and veiled threats of bad intentions, a sort of repressed knowledge lying at the book's gentle heart. Always-present Ali is our eyes and ears, narrating with an engaging, intelligent voice that occasionally detours with personal revelations about her own family and a happy, uncomplicated childhood before it was hijacked by her sister's constant drug abuse. Even after befriending Foy, Bryony’s wise-cracking father who owns a successful Corfu olive farm, reality dawns on Ali that the role
for which she auditioned with the Skinners is far more complicated than she had anticipated.
Neill is at her best in describing Ali’s depiction of the Skinners’ “schadenfreude,” an attitude that helps Ali blend in with the family. Throughout, she neither passes judgment on their life nor is impressed by it. Their wealth, their complicated relationships, “their topsy-turvy morality” seem to wash over Ali like the sea over Norfolk’s chalk ridges. As the title suggests, we know only
as much as Ali overhears, enough conversations to know that the talk of collateralized debt obligations is not good and is somehow related to Nick and Bryony's stress levels.
The physical and emotional landscape of Ali’s job is brilliantly described, and Neill captures the essence of this shadowy, chameleon-like outer world that Ali must inhabit. While Ali learns to tread on the map of family life without leaving a big imprint, Neill captivates us with the Skinners' lives,
this tale a wry and sympathetic evocation of wealth that rises and falls, only to be rebuilt all over again.