Friday, 8 July 2016

"The Woman Next Door" Cass Green

The Woman Next Door
This is the story of two women and how their neighbourly friendship develops into a much more sinister relationship as they become entangled in each other's lives.

Glamorous and seemingly successful Melissa is married to Mark with a teenage daughter Tilly who Hester, the neighbour, had often looked after when she was much younger. Things have drifted recently and Hester is desperate to become part of Melissa's life again. When she sees an opportunity to come to Melissa's rescue, she grabs it. And from then on, things begin to lead the two women on a much more sinister and dangerous path revealing deep secrets and cracks in their carefully staged outward images.

We meet Hester first; a prickly character. Neither warm nor particularly friendly, she complains about the other women on the computer course she is currently attending, criticising them as the sort of "women entirely defined by the workings of their womb". But Hester's offence at the "intrusive" question about whether she has children or not immediately indicates an issue and offers some explanation for her bitterness and reserve. She is a proud woman. When invited to join the group for a drink afterwards her reaction is "I'd rather stare at my uneaten cake and find out what's on Radio 4", yet she is annoyed that the invitation is offered as an after thought. She knows she is not popular and already alienated from most women her age through her childlessness. She's a really interesting character as I did not really take to her, but did enjoy her wry asides, comments and observations. I think it's a bold decision of Green's to open the novel with someone who is not that likeable as it may alienate some readers but you must continue! Hester is intriguing, and her lively narrative moves along full of dry wit, eye rolling judgements and also with some sadness and sympathy. Green's characterisation is fluent, flawless and convincing.

Hester's chapters are narrated in first person which allows the reader to hear her caustic internal monologue and fully appreciate her judgmental attitude and sense of superiority. As the novel progresses it becomes clear that Hester is not always a reliable narrator as her perception of people is tainted and always negative. Green certainly knows how to use her unreliable narrator to create tension and plenty of opportunities for revelations and twists.

Hester is actually quite loathsome and unlikable but there is something captivating about her unpleasantness. Her observations and comments are so acidic and cutting that Hester becomes the character you love to hate. She constantly refers to her dead husband's physiological cruelty towards her which makes the reader prone to feeling sympathy towards her (his continual mocking of her must have eroded her self confidence) and this cleverly misleads us and makes the subsequent events even more shocking. Her lines "it is fair to say I am not a woman with many skills. But I can bake. I am very good with small children. And I have an excellent memory" are so chilling...... Be afraid!

Melissa is not that likeable at first either! Fixated with her appearance, she herself confesses that she can no longer remember "what % of her is now artificial". She also seems full of resentment - particularly towards her husband as she happily runs up a huge bill at the hairdressers justifying it with the comment, "if he's going to behave like on of those husbands, then she will behave like one of those wives." However there is something else going on here; something foreboding and a hint of something more sinister chasing Melissa. She comments on the "uneasy ripple in atmosphere .....the tiny fizzy charge deep in the primeval part of her brain.." She repeats the statements "no one is looking at her. .....no one is following her......no one knows." I liked the description that when she walks out of the salon it is like "everything on the contrast button on the TV is too high". Melissa is haunted by something, hiding something and the brilliant simile of her world being like a snow globe that could shatter at the "slightest push of a finger tip into a million lethal pieces" is so effective in building suspense and incredibly suggestive that I was completely gripped.

When Melissa's foster brother turns up on unannounced on her doorstep, events start to spiral out of control. Melissa has a past she has worked hard to eradicate and there is no way she wants to be reminded of it now. The viciousness that Jamie's arrival provokes within her hints of a deep, dark past- something more than just wanting to forget her humble beginnings now that she is a woman of wealth and comfort with a privately educated daughter living in a huge, immaculate house. What happens next will affect everyone and change their lives so dramatically that none of them can possibly foresee the devastating road of self destruction on which they are now firmly set.

The second part of the novel shows the increasing power and control Hester feels as she helps Melissa deal with Jamie. Her "euphoria" at "saving" Melissa and her calm, rational manner are unnerving, creepy and eerie. Melissa is caught between needing some help and despite hating herself for letting Hester see her vulnerability and for getting so involved, she needs someone to guide her out of the mess she has created. It is a fascinating psychological study of the two characters and a really interesting dynamic. I was hooked.

This book is quietly unsettling. The characters are ordinary people and could be describing any of our neighbours. The situations are not so far fetched that they couldn't happen to any of us - what makes them more interesting is the decision made in the heat of the moment and how this triggers behaviour that had so far been suppressed. It is an unsuspectingly gripping novel and very dark. It's not a page turner in the most obvious way but I certainly didn't want to put it down and read in almost one sitting. I was really quite captivated by Hester and also Melissa was a very complex character. Green effectively manipulated my sympathy and empathy, catching me out with twists, revelations and a sudden reassessment of who was really the most dangerous character.

It has definitely stayed with me.

There have been very mixed reviews about this book. Some readers claim it is too far fetched and that several things push the realms of reality and believability but for me, the story worked and the behaviour of the characters did feel authentic enough not to distract me or stop me from getting caught up in the plot. After all, this is a work of fiction and to be honest, I'm happy to excuse some slightly contrived events if they create a gripping and exciting climax which is definitely the case in "The Woman Next Door". I still think it's worth reading as there is some excellent writing and clever characterisation. This is Green's debut adult novel (she has published several YA titles) and I think she is a writer to watch out for in the future.

I liked the title - it seems as if "woman" is replacing "girl" in the latest psychological thrillers! This would definitely be enjoyed by fans of "Grip Lit". It also echoes Heller's "Notes on a Scandal". And today I will be looking at my neighbours in a rather different light!

My thanks to NetGalley for the advanced copy of this novel in return for a fair review. For more recommendations and reviews please follow me on Twitter @katherinesunde3 (bibliomaniacuk) or sign up to receive future posts via email.

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