Hazel McHaffie

The macabre and the make-believe

Buckingham PalaceLast week we took our youngest grandchildren to London.

Tower BridgeAs you do, we soaked up the usual history and took lots of photos of the famous sites and spun a few yarns to bring the past alive, but a couple of the attractions on our list turned out to be far too scary for them to even try. Fair enough; no pressure. I was a ridiculously fearful child myself with far too vivid an imagination that got me into a lot of trouble, so I sympathise.

But their reaction made me think about tolerance levels and the power of the imagination. Which led me to the extraordinary talent some writers have for sucking you in to a horrifying or disturbing world. It’s just words on a page, isn’t it? A mere 26 letters strung together in various combinations. Make-believe. But put together in just this way those words can blot out reality, take over your emotions, keep you on the edge of your seat dreading what’s coming but compelled to read on. That’s clever. That’s power.

So in this frame of mind my eye was caught by reviews such as ‘the go-to queen of contemporary brain-twisting crime‘; ‘the twistiest plots known to woman’, ‘everyday tales of warped psychology’. Intriguing. And who is this queen of twists?  Sophie Hannah, that’s who. OK. Heard of her, not read any of her work. But I appreciate good plotting; I’m fascinated by psychology; I’ll give her a go. Broaden my horizons.

I chose a recent one: A Game for all the Family – billed as her ‘first standalone psychological thriller‘ on her website.

Justine Merrison has escaped from the rat-race of life in London (I’ve just been there so have an up to date sense of the pace and pressure of the metropolis) to an idyllic home in Devon (my neck of the woods so I know all about the very different pace of life and the picture postcard scenery).

Cottage in Devon

Appropriate choice so far.

Justine plans to spend her days ‘doing Nothing. With a capital N. Not a single thing’, so she cuts off all connection to her old life as a stressed TV executive. But before long her teenage daughter, Ella, becomes withdrawn and miserable. She eventually confides that her ‘best friend in the whole world‘, George, has been expelled from school for stealing her coat, a coat which she gave him as a gift. Incensed by the injustice, Justine puts pressure on the headmistress to reconsider her decision, only to be told that there is not, and never was, a George in their school. So far so good. I’m hooked.

Then Justine sees a creative writing essay Ella has written and she knows at once this is no innocent teenage make-believe. Here is a darkly disturbed mind spinning a macabre tale of a dysfunctional family spiralling out of control. Where has this information come from? And how does it link to the mysterious George for whom she’s pining? Before long, anonymous calls start … then threats … then sinister events. Graves are dug. Justine is caught up in a whirl of frightening happenings, which are wilder than any drama she ever worked on in her former life. Just where do the boundaries of truth lie? And how can she protect her family from the forces gathering against them?

I was sufficiently curious to keep turning the pages, but I have to confess the ending disappointed. Why? Because I was looking for something less obvious given the build up. Because the ‘bad guy’ was always ‘the bad guy’. Because the psychology seemed suspect to me. Because it left me disappointed.

So no more Hannah novels for me then … Ahhh, now there’s the moral of the tale. How unfair of me. She’s an internationally famous, best-selling writer with a string of awards under her belt; she must be doing something right. Even this book has been well reviewed by some critics. And yet I’ve judged her on a first taste. I’d hate it if someone did that to me, so it’s only fair that, at some point, I give her a second chance.

I am resolved.

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2 Responses to “The macabre and the make-believe”

  • Hazel, I read this book last year and so was interested to see what you thought about it. It certainly filled my mind and made me think both whilst I was reading it and for days afterwards but I didn’t like it much either. I’d seen it described as ‘chilling’ and as ‘a literary puzzle to unlock the dark side of the mind’, but I didn’t think it was. It came over to me as artificial, and contrived. It’s also long-winded and mostly completely unbelievable, which made it lose any sense of tension or suspense. But it is a cleverly complicated plot, with stories within stories.

    I haven’t read any other books by Sophie Hannah, but I see from the Goodreads reviews of her other books that some people love them and others dislike them. Like you I’ll try another of hers some time – it maybe that this book just wasn’t right for me.

    • Hazel says:

      Phew! Thank you for that, Margaret. Some of our response to a book is subjective and a matter of taste, but I felt this was something more than that. Your analysis squares very much with mine so I was most grateful for your comment – carrying a lot of weight given your experience as a professional reader.

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