One fateful night. One unthinkable family tragedy. One survivor. This is Alison’s story.
Alison is as close to anonymous as she can get: with no ties, no home, a backroom job, hers is a life lived under the radar. She’s a nobody; she has no-one and that’s how she wants it.
But once Alison was someone else: once she was Esme Grace, a teenager whose bedroom sat at the top of a remote and dilapidated house on the edge of a bleak estuary. A girl whose family, if not happy, exactly, was no unhappier than anyone else’s – or so she thought.
Then one night a terrible thing happened in the crooked house, a nightmare of violence out of which Alison emerged the only witness and sole survivor and from which she has been running ever since. Only when she meets academic Paul Bartlett does Alison realise that if she’s to have any chance of happiness, she has to return to her old life and confront the darkness that worked its way inside her family and has pursued her ever since.
As she seeks to uncover the truth of what happened that terrible night, Alison begins to question everything she thought she knew. Is there anyone she can trust?
I don’t very often pursue a review copy of a book – my thanks to Kirsteen at Little, Brown Book Group for her help – but everything I’d read about this new thriller made me think I’d love to read and review it. I also very rarely read two thrillers back-to-back as one of them tends to suffer from the comparison, but this one was so different that I decided to risk it. And it was a risk that paid off – I thoroughly enjoyed it.
On the cover, Alison Pearson describes it as “Broadchurch meets Rebecca” – I’m not so sure about Rebecca, but the Broadchurch comparison is absolutely spot-on. Saltleigh is an isolated and close-knit community with a bleak landscape, where no-one is quite what they seem, and people are still talking about the family massacre that rocked the community thirteen years before. When the surviving daughter Esme – now known as Alison – returns to the area, against her better judgement, to attend a wedding, it’s obvious that things are never going to go well. Layers of lies and secrets are slowly uncovered, all leading up to an explosive and unexpected conclusion.
The characters aren’t particularly likeable – even Alison, understandably damaged as she is following her history. Many of the Saltleigh inhabitants are damaged individuals – alcohol dependent, mentally unstable, convicted of other crimes, affected by violence and death in their midst – but this is a community that has strangely pulled together to bury its secrets until Alison’s return begins to rock the foundations.
I have to say that it wasn’t a pacy edge-of-your-seat thriller – it’s very dark and claustrophobic, filled with menace, and the reader is an observer watching the layers being removed. The writing is quite superb, not a word wasted – the setting is really vividly described in its hostile bleakness, the emotional layering is quite perfect, the tension sustained to the point it physically hurts, the large cast of characters carefully and clearly drawn, the story thoroughly mesmerising as it slowly unfolds.
This is a very different thriller, and one that I’m sure many readers will thoroughly enjoy. I thought it was quite compulsive reading.
The Crooked House was published on 8th January by Sphere, in hardcover and for kindle: the paperback will follow on 23rd January.
Christobel Kent was born in London and educated at Cambridge. She has lived variously in Essex, London and Italy. Her childhood included several years spent on a Thames sailing barge in Maldon, Essex with her father, stepmother, three siblings and four step-siblings, which provided inspiration for the setting of her recent novel The Crooked House. She now lives in both Cambridge and Florence with her husband and five children.