In 2011, The Alan Titchmarsh Show launched a competition to find a new novelist. The 1000+ entries, competing for a deal with Harper Collins, were whittled down to a final four. Jane Cable’s excellent The Cheesemaker’s House won the suspense and crime category. But the overall winner was Madeleine Reiss for Someone to Watch Over Me. The slightly odd thing – particularly after reading this excellent book – was that it won in the women’s fiction category. In a guest blog on The Serious Reader, Jane says “the genres could have been reversed – in fact maybe they should have been; my book is romance-suspense whereas Madeleine’s is definitely the other way around.” I can only agree, but at least it meant that both of these excellent books came to the attention of readers.
Someone to Watch Over Mereally does defy categorisation. The basic story is about two women. Carrie and her husband take five year old Charlie to a Norfolk beach, where he plays with Max, another five year old who is there with his mother Molly. Later in the day, Charlie disappears – and he is never found. The story unfolds several years later. Carrie is opening a gift shop with her feisty but loyal friend Jen – life has moved on. Carrie is now on her own – her marriage doesn’t survive Charlie’s loss – and we see her moving on, her tentative attempts to repair her marriage and her interest in neighbour Oliver. After the shocking start, for a time the book is unashamed chick lit – the setting up of the shop in great detail, the interactions with neighbours, the banter with Jen, Jen’s forays into on-line dating, Carrie’s difficult relationship with her mother, all peppered with repeated descriptions of the clothes the characters are wearing. In alternate chapters, we have the story of Molly and Max – and when the two threads come together, it becomes quite a different book, a dark, violent, edge-of-your-seat thriller with a touch of the supernatural.
Some reviewers haven’t entirely agreed, but I thought the whole book worked magnificently. I’m usually a fairly disciplined reader, but this one had me reading until 2am as there was no way I was going to put it down without knowing what happened. The style is seductive – the lighter chick lit style in parts throws the shocks into sharp relief, and makes them twice as shocking. The author writes exceptionally well – this is a book you experience with all your senses (some of the settings are cinematically vivid, complete with smells, tastes and sounds) and it’s a highly enjoyable roller coaster, easy to read in many ways but very difficult in others, that leaves you quite limp when you emerge at the other end. I loved the portrayal of the mother-son relationships – both Max and Charlie are endearingly and very realistically drawn. There are some images that will stay with me a long time – to tell you about them might spoil your discovery of the story, but I was particularly mesmerised by the part played by the songs of Ella Fitzgerald (bet you’re intrigued now, aren’t you?).
This is a book that really will appeal to all sorts of readers – chick lit readers who want something a little different, fans of authors with a mystical touch like Barbara Erskine, people who’ve enjoyed psychological thrillers by the likes of Rosamund Lupton or S J Watson. I thoroughly enjoyed every page, an immensely accomplished first novel, and can’t wait to see what Madeleine Reiss comes up with next.
Madeleine Reiss was born in Athens. She worked for some years in an agency for street performers and comedians and then as a journalist and publicist. She has two sons, and lives in Cambridge with her husband and younger son. The book was published by Harper in June 2013, and is available in Kindle and paperback formats.