"What Alice Knew" T A Cotterell
I think all I can say is 'Wow'.
This has given me the biggest book hangover in a while. I was literally stunned when I finished reading the last page and in some sort of trance for the following hours. Don't you just love it when a book like that falls into your life?! Bibliomaniac heaven.
In some ways it's not like a conventional best-selling, page-turning psychological thriller yet it is page turning and it so deserves to be a best seller!
I'd say "What Alice Knew" is more character driven than plot driven, with Cotterell not only successfully immersing us in the complexity of the protagonist's dilemma, but also getting us to consider wider issues about human nature, knowledge and truth. It has a gripping plot line but it is really a discussion of human behaviour. This book is exceptional in its ability to engage, thrill, intrigue and entertain as well as provoke philosophical questions and reflection. It's an accomplished, accessible, well paced novel that rivals all its contemporary popular "Grip Lit" titles with relatable characters and a compelling writing style. It's absorbing, arresting and addictive.
If you haven't read it then I highly recommend that you put everything else aside, find a spot (it doesn't have to even be quite because you'll lose yourself in this story) and get reading!
It's going to be a tricky book to review as I am torn between being absolutely desperate to talk about it and wary of giving anything away. The succinct blurb on the back cover is perfect in only telling the reader what they need to know and really I don't want to say more than that - other than, trust me, this is not just a clever marketing campaign - this book really will live up to the hype and you need to find out just what Alice knew.......!
So in case you haven't read the blurb, this is the story of Alice. Alice who has a perfect life, a dream job, a wonderful, loving husband and great kids. She is happy. She is secure. She is with her life partner and there is nothing that she doesn't know about him or about their relationship. She's confident, rational, logical and content. Nothing is going to ruffle her feathers.
And yet....suddenly a few things just don't add up. And as Alice reflects, what do you do when a slow dawning realisation begins to creep up on you and you are forced to look at your life with fresh eyes?
"Do you come straight out with it, a blurted question loaded with tears and ultimatums?"
Because once you start something, is there ever any way to go back? Once you know something, can you ever 'unknown' it again? Is it ever better to not know something?
At the beginning I liked Alice. She seems quiet but thoughtful. Calm. She is not weak, not a victim, she hasn't done anything wrong; she's committed to her marriage and family, she's reflective, insightful and good at her job. She is a portrait painter and I loved the insight this allowed her to have about people and truth. It is such an effective plot device and so intriguing. Through this Cotterell immediately adds multiple layers to his writing.
The book opens with Alice painting Julie, the young second wife of the rich Ray.
"I had painted a faux-girly voice and a belief in the redistributive power of of shopping......I had also painted subterfuge. ......I had painted the fragile interplay of power and trust, money and fear, love and mobility. I had painted the portrait of a second marriage."
I love the sentences like "Uneasy lies the head that wears that crown," that are gently slipped into the prose and seemingly about something obvious, yet imply so much more and come to mean so much more as the story continues.
The references to painters, art and mythology give this thriller a fresh angle from its friends on the bookshop shelves and add a delicious depth to the characters and their situation. However it is never overly intellectualising, pretentious or distracting. It's subtly thought provoking, used to enhance characters and provide metaphors in a story that is fast paced made up largely from dialogue and internal monologue.
I think what makes this book resonate, what makes it unsettling, is that this is a normal couple - a normal family. Neither husband nor wife is apparently unhappy, vindictive, frustrated. There is no reason for anything to rumble the status quo. But it does. And from that point everything unravels. It resonates because it is relatable, believable and probably captures our deepest fears of what could happen to any of us. Cotterell constantly says to the reader, "What would you do?" "Could you?" and that classic, "What if....."
"Life doesn't just 'go on' as the cliche has it. The clocks are reset, relationships recalibrated."
I really liked the recurring concept of an "infinite lie" and how "lies compound like a debt until you can no longer pay the interest." Cotterell really conveys the domino effect of the situation Alice and Ed find themselves in. He cleverly builds plenty of tension and suspense as the reader holds their breath in anticipation while watching it all play out.
Despite how this review might make the book appear, it is not a heavy read. I flew through it in record time, totally engrossed. Although Alice is prone to reflection and artistic musings, she is also capable of shrewd, sharp and humorous description, particularly when talking about her school mum acquaintance Bea:
"Bea is part of the school-run-have-coffee-play-tennis-back-to-yours-for-a-gossip-and-a-salad-and-a-glass-of-wine-oh-go-on-then-I'm-not-driving-OMG-it's-time-to-pick-up-the-kids-brigade."
And there is lots of very down to earth, blunt observations on contemporary society too:
"I had never realised how the Internet throbs 24/7 on subjects that make the national news. Trolls, conspiracy theorists, single issue maniacs, swivel-eyed obsessives, anyone with dodgy spelling and an iron cast opinion have a new home."
This creates a good balance against the deeper reflections about art and portraits - although the concept of faces, what we see, what we are and what is the truth, are intrinsic to the novel. I really enjoyed Alice's comments about portraits and how at times they also conveyed a kind of naivety in what she was missing, what she was not seeing, not able to grasp.
"Always start with the eyes. They tell you how strong someone is, what reserves they have, how far they would go. They reveal the structure. The rest is cladding."
"A portrait is a painted answer; I only had a canvas of questions."
"What is a portrait if not the opening up of a character, the physical manifestation of the story of a life."
There are plenty of universal themes in this novel. There are the obvious ones about truth, honesty, loyalty, marriage, friendship and parenting. Then there is almost a second layer of more underlying, implied themes like the difference between right and wrong and how that can change depending on circumstances and responsibilities, what does it mean to do the right thing, how much is class still an issue in our society, what does it really mean or take to say sorry. There is a lot about perception and expectation too. As I have said already, Cotterell does a magnificent job of exploring all of these concepts through a very captivating story line which will appeal to a very wide audience and appeal to people on a number of layers. Whether you are looking for a chilling read that is ultimately enthralling and full of twists or whether you are looking for something more fascinating, entrancing and unputdownable, this is the book for you!
I found the ending very emotional. The last three pages actually had quite a profound affect on me, a bit like an epiphany even. I'd half guessed a few things along the way but really needed to join the dots and then I finished reading with a whole host of new questions! I really want people to read this book so I can talk about it some more!
My final point would be to congratulate Cotterell on writing from a female point of view with such conviction and authenticity. And for the lasting impression this book has made on me as I continue to think about the lines you often have to consider crossing or not crossing in life, and what it really means to protect those we love.
"Life isn't only what you see in front of you. It takes place in the margins, in the lines between the squares."
If you enjoyed "The Widow" by Fiona Barton, "In Her Wake" by Amanda Jennings, "Lying in Wait" by Liz Nugent or "My Husband's Son" by Deborah O'Connor, then you will definitely enjoy this.
Without a doubt 5* from me. Absolutely loved it.
Thanks so much to Becky Hunter at Penguin Random House for the advance copy of the book.
If you want to see what else I have enjoyed reading then you can follow me on Twitter @katherinesunde3 (bibliomaniacuk)