"The Fire Child" S K Tremayne
I loved "The Ice Twins" and rated it 5/5 stars so when I saw that there was a new title from Tremayne I knew I had to read it! I was thrilled when my request for an advanced copy from NetGalley was approved!
This story is set in Cornwall and the setting is evoked as strongly and with as much atmosphere as Scotland was in her previous novel. Rachel Daly has left London, giving up a job and a "supposedly exciting life" to marry the handsome David; an older, richer widower with an 8 year old son, Jamie. She feels happy to have left London behind reflecting that she is "no longer hanging on to dear life anymore" and embraces her new start with her new husband, new son, new house which they share with her new mother in law Juliet. Rachel is excited by the prospect of continuing the renovation of the ancestral home with its 18 bedrooms, huge hall ways and drawing rooms- such a contrast from her own council estate upbringing. She also has a deeply buried past which she hopes to have truly left behind, making sure it is forever carefully hidden from David.
Rachel wants to "heal" David and Jamie who are both still in the grips of grief following the death of wife and mother Nina, who died in an accident 18 months ago in the Morvellon Mines which are owned by David's family and close to the house. Although Rachel is highly conscious that she is struggling to live in the shadow of the perfect Nina, she still sees it as her job "to rescue things" and repair this hurting family.
From the beginning Tremayne sows the seeds of suspense with the chilling description of West Cornwall as a land where "hard granite glistens after the rain, rivers run through words like deep secrets, terrible cliffs conceal exquisite caves where moorland valleys cradle wonderful houses." The landscape's rich history and captivating natural raw beauty are a perfect setting for a story full of ghostly shadows from the past. David's family have run the mines for centuries; a business which has made them wealthy and powerful but at the expense of the lives of many of their employees who were sent deep into the tunnels that run under the sea. From the drawing room, David's ancestors would sip their claret and "hear the picks of the miners working the tin that paid for the wine...crawling under the sea that sometimes broke through and poured into the tunnels .. the sea claiming them while (we) sat in Carnhallow eating canapés." Imagery is vivid and it reminded me of "Jamaica Inn", "Moonfleet", "Lorna Doone" and a very brooding version of "Poldark"!
The chapter headings count down the days before Christmas so the reader is already tense, sensing events will build towards a dramatic climax. They will not be disappointed! Tension increases as Rachel's new home, Carnhallow, though stunning, it "glares at (her) with disapproval" and she is never far from hearing the "brutal sea in the distance, kicking at the rocks beneath Morvellan...like an atrocity that will never stop." Rachel is also haunted by the shadow of Nina as her presence lingers in a way Rebecca haunted the narrator in the brilliant novel by Daphne Du Maurier. It is highly compelling.
Rachel is the prime narrator but we also hear from David and this adds a more complicated layer to the plot. There is a suggestion that Nina's death was not an accident. David reveals "only he knows the truth", a truth which torments him daily. Jamie also seems to have seen and heard things he shouldn't have on the night of Nina's accident and it seems everyone is keeping secrets about what actually happened. Although David is in love with Rachel and sees her as a refreshing contrast to Nina, admiring her as a survivor with opinions he never usually hears in his highly pressured, workaholic life as a talented QC, this affection and respect is not always obvious to Rachel. It is also questioned by the reader as Rachel's behaviour begins to change following Jamie's strange predictions about the future as he develops an unnerving conviction that he can still see Nina and Rachel overhears him to "talking" to her. Jamie makes frightening statements that threaten Rachel and claim she will be dead by Christmas. David becomes compromised and suspicious of her- disbelieving her claims about Jamie and trying to ignore her persistent search for answers. He thinks she is becoming rather unstable but she in turn becomes fearful of him, suspecting that he might have been involved in Nina's "accident" and is therefore capable of violence or even murder. Both begin to believe the other of committing murder, both see the other as dangerous and the reader is unsure who to trust and who to believe. Both narrators seem unreliable and this confuses the reader who has been led to form a fond affection for Rachel, identifying with her and rooting for her to succeed in "mending" her new family. All the way through I was kept guessing as to what had actually happened - there were so many possible explanations planted by Tremayne and several twists and revelations. Is Nina really dead? Has she come back? Is David seeing her? Did he kill her? Did Jamie? Did his mother, Juliet? How dangerous is David? How unstable is Rachel? As I said before, compelling stuff!
I liked the way the house still seemed to belong to Nina and it was impossible to escape her legacy. Rachel even imagines seeing her with them while she sleeps with David. Juliet tries to get her to wear some of Nina's clothes, observing that there is an uncanny likeness between them. As the novel progresses, Rachel seems to become more haunted. Tremayne then begins to mix the two stories - David's and Rachel's secret pasts, to create fantastic tension and mounting suspense. There is more confusion, repetition and subtle hints. The atmosphere becomes more foreboding and I honestly couldn't drag myself away from the pages! Tremayne's use of weather and location are deeply eerie and affecting. My fear was palpable and literally heart-stopping. I was truly gripped and truly scared.
This is the best ghost story I have read in a long time. Jamie's character is convincing and authentic and he helps to influence the reader of Rachel's reliability. He is a little like the boy in "Sixth Sense", as sensitive and as receptive to atmosphere and emotion but more exaggerated because of his grief and confusion. I was impressed with how Tremayne manipulated me to respond to David and how I was still trying to fit the puzzle together until the last minute. The plot is well controlled and skilfully managed.
And I was too scared to turn the light off when I eventually finished reading it late at night!
I highly recommend this book, especially if you are fans of the film "Sixth Sense" or books like Du Maurier's "Rebecca", Stephen King's"The Shining" and Sarah Water's "The Little Stranger."
My huge thanks to NetGalley and the publishers Harper Collins for approving an advanced copy of this book in return for an honest review - it has been a real treat to review this book!
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