I’m delighted today to be joining the blog tour for The Scarlet Dress, the latest book from Louise Douglas: published by Boldwood Books on 18th February, it’s now available for kindle (free via Kindle Unlimited), in paperback and as an audiobook. My thanks to Rachel at Rachel’s Random Resources for the invitation and support, and to the publishers for my advance reading copy (provided via netgalley).
When I reviewed Louise Douglas’ last book, The House by the Sea (you’ll find that review here) I ran through all the books she’d written and that I’d loved – and I make no apology for doing that again. While some readers might have only discovered her wonderful writing through her books with Boldwood, I’ve read every one since the quite wonderful The Love of my Life back in 2009 – it was long-listed for the RNA Romantic Novel of the Year Award, and thoroughly deserved its nomination. Her second, the heart-breaking Missing You, won the RNA Readers’ Choice Award: her third, The Secrets Between Us, a highly accomplished thriller and love story strongly reminiscent of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, was a 2012 Richard and Judy Summer Read. Then came In Her Shadow, followed by Your Beautiful Lies (you’ll find my review here): and there followed The Secret By The Lake, and I thought it was perhaps the best of them all (you’ll find my review here).
Then there was a long silence, and I thought she’d disappeared for ever – and then the joy when she reappeared with Boldwood, and the pleasure of reading another book from an author who’s always been such a personal favourite. The House by the Sea was published in February last year – one of my books of the year, so beautifully written, an enthralling story, haunting in its every detail. And now we have another… I really don’t need to say how much I was looking forward to this one, do I?
Alice Lang was wearing her favourite scarlet dress when she disappeared twenty-five years ago, and her memory still casts a long shadow.
‘The past was like water. Once the tide turned, you couldn’t hold it back.’
In the long, hot summer of 1995, twenty-two-year-old Alice Lang rents a caravan on a holiday park on the outskirts of the lively holiday resort of Severn Sands. She befriends Marnie, a shy, damaged little girl whose father is the park’s caretaker and whose mother died a few months earlier. Will, whose mother runs the bar, falls in love with Alice, and is unbearably jealous of anyone else she sees. Tensions rise until one evening Alice disappears from her caravan. She’s never seen again, and only her scarlet dress is found washed up on the shore.
A quarter of a century later, the town is run down and nobody comes there anymore. Mr and Mrs deVillars, former owners of the holiday park, have passed the failing business onto their son Guy, who promptly sells the land for development. Builders clearing the land to create an expanse of executive homes uncover human bones. It has to be Alice.
Will and Marnie’s lives were entirely shaped by what happened that summer, and now Alice has been found, they must struggle to pin down their memories, to escape the secrets of the past, the lies they told and the unbearable guilt they’re both carrying.
They need to find out what happened to Alice. Who killed her? And why?
Quite often, the books you love the most are by far the most difficult to review. I’ve sat at my keyboard several times today, thrown down a few phrases, tried to link them together – but I’ve really struggled to capture quite how this book made me feel. I’d usually start with a little about the story, but someone’s already sweat blood over that for the book’s cover, and I think it’s enough. But there are two distinct timelines, the 1995 disappearance of Alice Lang (presumed drowned, leaving her scarlet dress behind), and the present day discovery of her bones – I guess that makes it a murder mystery. And read at that level, it’s certainly a compelling story – perhaps a little slower than some might like, but picking up pace in the final furlong when all its pieces begin to fall into place.
But this book is so much more than that. The timelines don’t alternate in the way you might expect, a straight telling of the then and now, but swirl and eddy and flow – secrets begin to emerge, you think you have everything worked out, only for that certainty to disappear again when you find yourself moving in an entirely different direction. When you add to that the simmering undercurrent of passion and jealousy from the 90s story and the complexities of the characters in the present day – impacted by the legacy of the past, and the truth that even they aren’t entirely sure of – it becomes a story that challenges and excites, and something very different indeed. While the reader might flounder at times when trying to get a grip on the facts, the author always holds the threads of the story extraordinarily firmly – you feel you are in the hands of someone entirely in control, and the writing is exceptional.
It’s very much a character driven story, but Alice herself I thought remained something of an enigma – at first I’d decided she was manipulative, using people for her own ends, playing with their emotions, but she was rather deeper than that, driven by something quite different. Marnie’s a fascinating character – a very innocent child in 1995 involved in a maelstrom of emotion she couldn’t begin to understand, mute in adulthood perhaps as a result of that childhood trauma, finding solace in her love for dogs who’d survived traumas of their own. Family relationships feature heavily, and are beautifully handled – Marnie’s father and the mother whose loss adds rawness to the early story, her relationship with her own daughter. And then there’s Will – difficult to like, perhaps the one who really does use people, driven to uncover the truth but sometimes afraid of what might emerge when he does, haunted by guilt about so many things that he struggles to cope with it or find redemption. The characters emotions are always near the surface and draw you further into the story – this is a book you feel, that you become part of, rather than simply reading.
A word for the book’s setting too – the bleakness and seediness of a seaside town in February, past its prime, sad and neglected, in contrast to the holiday mecca it once was. It’s all part of what creates the book’s unique atmosphere – the mud flats, the shifting sands, the abandoned homes, the sad memories.
I will admit that this book took me far longer to read than I expected – I was enjoying it too much to rush, relishing the carefully chosen words, the nuances of the characters and their relationships, lingering over some of the uncovered secrets and letting them sink in before moving on, not wanting to miss a carefully crafted moment. Just in case I haven’t said it clearly enough, I really loved this book: I think it’s the author’s best writing yet, a stunning read, and I recommend it most highly.
About the author
Louise Douglas is the bestselling and brilliantly reviewed author of novels including The House By The Sea and Missing You – a RNA award winner. The Secrets Between Us was a Richard and Judy Book Club pick. She lives in the West Country.