I’m delighted today to be joining the blog tour for the latest book from Helen Matthews, The Girl in the Van, and to share my review: published by Darkstroke on 17th March, it’s now available for kindle (free via Kindle Unlimited) and also in paperback. My thanks to Rachel at Rachel’s Random Resources for the invitation and support – and to the author and publisher for my advance reading e-copy.
That’s one very dark cover – and perhaps one that wouldn’t usually attract a romance reader like me, but I’ve read and enjoyed Helen’s writing before. Although psychological suspense is rarely my first choice of reading, I’d been really intrigued by her first two books – After Leaving The Village and Lies Behind The Ruin – and just couldn’t fit them into my reading list, but I finally got there with Façade (you’ll find my review here). Helen had told me that she always aims to make her novels multi-layered for book club discussion so that, as well as the plot twists and central mystery, there are themes that resonate with readers – and that book most certainly lived up to her promise, psychological suspense but with strong elements of domestic noir and family drama too, and I very much enjoyed it. So I was looking forward to trying another – and particularly pleased to be able to join the blog tour.
A tormented mother. An abandoned girl. A deadly game of survival.
What happened to Ellie?
Traumatised by events, Ellie’s mother, Laura, can’t bear to stay in the Welsh seaside town where she lives with her partner, Gareth. She escapes to London, breaking all ties with him, and refusing to tell anyone her new address.
After two years of living alone and working in a mundane job, Laura buys an old campervan and joins a singles holiday. Here, she meets Miriana, a teenage girl who bears a chilling resemblance to Ellie. As Laura uncovers Miriana’s story, she’s shocked by the parallels to her own life.
But stories can be dangerous, and someone out there will stop at nothing to prevent the truth about Ellie from coming out…
While this book is many miles away from my usual choice of reading, it opens in fairly familiar territory – Laura heading off in her camper van on a singles holiday to Pembrokeshire, calling in on her mother on the way, then the awkwardness of the whole “fun” experience. And as she decides to cut the holiday short, it’s clear that she’s wrestling with a considerable number of unresolved issues – including a broken marriage that saw her flee to London without sharing her new address, and extreme grief at the absence of her teenage daughter Ellie. And then Eastern European Miriana enters her life in a rather unexpected way – and the book follows the complex stories of all three female characters, moving smoothly from present to past and back again, steadily and inexorably building towards an explosive climax.
When I read the author’s last book, I stressed the problem with classifying it and placing it in a nice tidy box – and this book crosses those genre lines too. In the three storylines that unfold, there are exceptionally well handled and developed elements of family drama – she creates some wonderfully complex yet believable characters, not always likeable but who engage you in their relationships and the many twists and turns of their stories. There’s a multiplicity of themes woven into the book’s fabric – drug culture and county lines, displaced people, mental health, dysfunctional families and their secrets, relationship dynamics – but it also has a considerable narrative drive, a pace that’s well sustained with a steady cranking up of tension and uncertainty, never derailed by its handling of the contemporary issues.
I really enjoy the author’s writing – there’s a smoothness about the transitions between past and present and the different perspectives, and while the subject matter might be difficult at times it’s all extremely well and sensitively handled. There’s an overall grittiness about the story that I never find entirely comfortable (that’s just me…), but I did very much enjoy its authenticity. And after the disentangling of the different stories, and the uncovering of a number of intriguing secrets, the focus then shifts just a little and the book satisfyingly becomes an edge-of-the-seat thriller – and it was a progression I felt worked exceptionally well.
When writing a review I usually like to include a little more detail – observations on the characters, perhaps a few story points that I particularly liked – but I’m very conscious of the need to avoid spoilers with this one as they would only lessen the book’s impact. I lingered over the individual stories as they unfolded, and found the gathering pace of the book’s climax impossible to resist, feverishly reading into the early hours – this is a book many would enjoy, and I recommend it really highly.
About the author
Helen Matthews writes page-turning psychological suspense novels and is fascinated by the darker side of human nature and how a life can change in an instant. Her fourth novel The Girl in the Van, a suspense thriller with dark contemporary themes will be published by Darkstroke Books in March 2022. Previous novels include After Leaving the Village, which won first prize in the opening pages category at Winchester Writers’ Festival, and was followed by Lies Behind the Ruin, domestic noir set in France, published by Hashtag Press. Her third novel Façade was published by Darkstroke in September 2020.
Born in Cardiff, Helen read English at the University of Liverpool and worked in international development, consultancy, human resources and pensions management. She fled corporate life to work freelance while studying for a Creative Writing MA at Oxford Brookes University. Her stories and flash fiction have been shortlisted and published by Flash 500, 1000K Story, Reflex Press, Artificium and Love Sunday magazine.
She is a keen cyclist, covering long distances if there aren’t any hills, sings in a choir and once appeared on stage at Carnegie Hall, New York in a multi-choir performance. She loves spending time in France. Helen is an Ambassador for the charity, Unseen, which works towards a world without slavery and donates her author talk fees, and a percentage of royalties, to the charity.