"My Husband's Son" Deborah O'Connor
This book seems to have taken Twitter by storm and powered its way up the ebook chart in record breaking fashion. It has been highly recommended by the all best book bloggers in town, by authors I admire and O'Connor's publishers, Twenty7, are fast becoming a reliable "go to" for brand new talent. The only other books this year which for me, have created such a tsunami of excitement, are C L Taylor's "The Missing" and Claire MacDonald's yet to be published "I See You". So I really could not wait any longer to read it, even though part of me was worried - what if I didn't like it as much as everyone else? I just didn't want to be disappointed.
Well I sure didn't need to worry! There is absolutely nothing disappointing about this confident, absorbing, thought provoking novel.
For those not familiar with the plot, "My Husband's Son" is about Heidi and Jason. They meet at a support group for parents whose children have disappeared, been abducted or murdered. Their shared loss and shared understanding of what is every parents worst nightmare, brings them together and they build a new life - although constantly still searching for Barney, Jason's son who disappeared 5 years ago. Then Heidi thinks she spots Barney. Jason is not convinced. Soon Heidi's determination to reunite Jason with this boy she believes to be his son threatens their fragile marriage and as she begins to uncover evidence that Jason has hidden from her, things become increasingly more tense and emotionally fraught.
From the outset, introducing two characters that have suffered such trauma, unhappiness and heartache creates an atmosphere of suspense and tension. There is a foreboding feeling which seeps out from between the opening pages, then lingers and hovers over the reader throughout the entire novel. O'Connor's writing is fluid and engaging. Her characters established quickly with ease and conviction. The reality of living with the infinite hope your child will be returned to you and then trying to cope with the disappointment when another recovered child is positively identified as not being yours is well evoked. Heidi is not a pitiful character but the reader definitely develops empathy for the fact that "what happened to my daughter now defines who I am." Every aspect of her life is haunted by her past. Losing her child is impossible to move on from even when she relocates, Heidi can not answer even the most simple of questions without having to tell her whole life story. I think this idea of being followed by a ghost and known only to people through what you have suffered very interesting and one O'Connor subtly explores within the story arc.
Apart from one true friend, Clara, Heidi has found it difficult to establish much of social circle; people are frightened they might put their own families at risk by association. Therefore the relationship with Jason is under more pressure.
Jason is also well constructed. A man not afraid to show his weakness, his distress, his lack of control. A man who can never ever give up the search for his son as that will be admitted he is dead. Heidi compares Jason's disappointment following yet another false sighting as like watching a lit fuse that sometimes might "burn slowly, so slowly that you were lulled into thinking it had fizzled out. But when you were least expecting it there'd be that nitrate flash." O'Connor's imagery and choice of simile is always simple but the references to fire and explosions infers danger and tension. O'Connor's description of places like the playground where a gaggle of teenagers are "packed into a dark space under the slide.....tips of cigarettes pinpricking the gloom..." are so sinister and fill the reader's subconscious with ideas of children being hidden, locked away, hurt; the traditional safety and innocence of a playground now tainted and forever ruined for both Jason and Heidi.
Heidi's conviction that she has found Barney leads her down a path of deception and danger which threatens to not only jeopardises her personal safety but also her career, her friendship with Clara and her marriage. How can she remain so certain she has found her husband's son when Jason, the boy's father, is as convinced it's not him? Who is right? Who do we believe?
I spent most of the novel trying to work out how reliable Heidi was as a narrator. She is under pressure, confused, upset, desperate to reunite her husband and finally give him peace of mind or closure. She makes decisions which are at times questionable, where her motive is unclear. She doesn't look after herself. Her obsession with the shop keeper, Keith, and then his friend Tommy, feel irrational and unfounded. It's as if being made so brutally aware of the horror lurking behind every closed door, Heidi is now seeing things that aren't there. If you are forced to acknowledge what people can be capable of, how could you not end up jumping to impulsive conclusions after catching a glimpse of other people's lives? Almost like in "The Girl on the Train," has Heidi just transferred an entire fiction on to innocent people so desperate is she to believe she has found Barney.
Not only does she want to reunite Barney and Jason, she also needs a resolution over the loss of her daughter Lauren. She yearns for a new baby but this yearning is racked with guilt that she is somehow replacing a child. She is a complex bundle of extreme emotions and I couldn't help thinking her imagination and desires were affecting her grip on reality.
Heidi is very real. She is not a hero, she is not a fool. She is not normally a risk taker or a someone who can pull off negotiations with intimidating men. She's impulsive not forward thinking, inexperienced and clumsy. The scrapes she finds herself in are so vividly recounted that I could smell the dustbins she leapt behind while clambering about in the dark and feel the bruises on my bones as she fell, tripped and stumbled through her precarious escapes. Although some readers may find some of the basic premise requiring a little stretch of imagination, I think Heidi's behaviour is actually very easy to relate to and very authentic. For me, she was more convincing and real that some of the other female protagonists featuring in current "Grip Lit" titles. I liked her vulnerability, her culpability, her drive and the way her obsessive quest for their personal "Holy Grail" masked and confused the story line and the reader's interpretation of the other characters.
O'Connor masterfully adds more twists so you are then forced to question the reliability of each character. Nothing is as clear cut as it seems and almost the years of searching for one thing have masked what should have been spotted from the beginning. Secrets, lies and half truths eek out from the between the lines as the thriller heads towards its ingenious conclusion.
This is a thriller, it is pacy and compelling. I read it almost one sitting. But it feels more original than just another "psychological thriller". There are twists, you are left gasping and shell shocked but I think O'Connor has achieved more. Within this novel are questions of identity (including your own and how you are presenting or shaping it), family, secrets, honesty, memories and the reliability of these memories. The novel is littered with little details that are used by O'Connor to subtly question the strength of the couple's relationship, asking what it means when a marriage is founded on an extreme crisis - what happens to the couple if that crisis is resolved?
I was also intrigued by O'Connor's investigation of the assumption that there is a strong, everlasting bond between a parent and child. As the front cover asks, you'd always recognise your own child wouldn't you? And what does it mean if you don't? What sort of parent does that make you?
Bring on a Book Group discussion!
Yes, this is a good book. It did not let me down in any way at all. I can't wait to see what Deborah O'Connor does next as she can clearly write well. In my opinion, she will sit alongside writers like Elizabeth Haynes, Samantha Hayes, Linda Huber, C L Taylor, Claire MacIntosh, Louise Cavendish as an author that writes unputdownable gripping literature!
Thank you very much to NetGalley for an advanced copy of the novel in return for a fair review. I had the release date on my calendar as October 2016 - which is in fact the date of the paperback edition so apologies for the late posting of this review.
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