An exquisite cover, an exquisite blurb, an exquisite premise and to be honest, an exquisite book! Sarah Stovell, you have a new a fan - although I suspect those words send a slight shiver down Stovell's spine considering that her novel is about the obsessive relationship between a writer and an aspiring creative writing student! But as I'm a book blogger she's obviously not in any danger........*cough*
Bo Luxton has it all—a loving family, a beautiful home in the Lake District, and a clutch of bestselling books to her name. Enter Alice Dark, an aspiring writer who is drifting through life, with a series of dead-end jobs and a freeloading boyfriend. When they meet at a writers’ retreat, the chemistry is instant, and a sinister relationship develops. Or does it?
Breathlessly pacey, taut and terrifying, Exquisite is a startlingly original and unbalancing psychological thriller that will keep you guessing until the very last page.
The novel is told from two different points of view, Bo and Alice. Both narratives are first person and both are as compelling, engaging, confusing and unnerving as each other.
The book starts with Bo, a writer living the writerly dream in the Lake District. From the outset, Bo's ability to play with language is clear as she explains the relationship between herself and her husband. There are subtle indications that she might be more underhand or manipulative than she presents which initially reflects the character's apathy towards her marriage rather than hinting at any tension or danger. She knows how to nudge her husband along into agreeing with her plans to move, to write, to live more separate lives so the reader accepts it for being what she states and simply stores this information of a tired marriage for later.
I liked the descriptions and observations about her life which also reflected Bo's (and Stovell's) ability to use language skilfully.
"Somehow, over the years, our everyday language had slipped away..... We'd become like furniture to each other: necessary for an easy life, but really just part of our surroundings - noticed only if visitors arrived."
Bo is happy with her life. Her marriage may have lost it's direction but she has the freedom to pursue her writing and spend time with her daughters - who she claims to the most important thing in her life. Appearing to have it all, there is a sharper edge to Bo and as she sets off to teach her writing course she says:
"It was the old conundrum of motherhood: always, I craved the time away. But when it came to it, I couldn't bear the distance between us."
As Bo continues to talk about leaving her children, something does begin to bother the reader about the exaggerated emotional reaction and hint that there may be more going on here. From early on the reader is intrigued to find out more about Bo and her back story; slightly superstitions of this 'perfect' mother and writer.
We meet Alice in the second chapter and her voice is equally fluent, engaging and intelligent. Alice has finished her University degree course and now has to face the fact that her passion for literature and writing is not enough to live on or separate her from every other young graduate who wants to be an author. Although eloquent and able to use imagery effectively, Alice's voice also captures her youth, her wry humour and her creative talent; she can be honest and she can be blunt. I liked her freshness and I liked the contrast of colloquial language alongside her musings on writing.
"I braced myself for a polite note, saying I hadn't been successful this time, but perhaps I'd be interested in one of their other courses, for beginners, at an extra cost of £2000 because those students suffering my particular level of delusion required a special kind of expensive tutor."
There is a lot about creative writing, being a writer and the struggles and craft of writing in this novel; I did wonder a few times whether this would resonate with readers who were not writers. But as obsession, passion and writing are key themes in the book it does make sense to allow both characters to talk about writing and how much it overwhelms, drives and compels them as people. Personally, I enjoyed Alice's humorous comments about the creative writing courses and found the comments from both characters about the life of a writer interesting and easy to empathise with. I think it enhances the obsessiveness and intensity of the characters and the relationship between them.
"Starting out with anything creative is like turning on an old tap. The water comes out brown at first because you're emptying your psyche of rubbish. Once you've got rid of that, it will run clear."
At times Bo is unlikeable - or perhaps more obviously flawed. I didn't ever dislike her but a few times I was rolling my eyes -as I believe is deliberately intended and contrived by Stovell, master manipulator extraordinaire. I smiled when Bo arrives at the course and reveals her egotism as she says that students were like "parasites" who would follow her around, "desperate to be singled out".
"Most writers, I felt sure, had not been loved enough as children."
The role of mothers is very significance in this novel. Alice is filled with angst and hatred towards hers and this experience forms the basis of her initial novel openings. Bo is outspoken about the impact mothers have on relationships, implying she has a great relationship with her two daughters yet she is actually hiding a deep trauma - and her refusal to come to terms with it leads to drastic consequences for both her and Alice. This contradiction in Bo -to be able to understand some things so clearly yet misunderstand other things, to use her influence over people and children positively and yet to also abuse it, is what makes her a fascinating character. A character that the reader is never really sure whether to like or dislike, have sympathy for or not. And although we may not like her, we want to watch her.
The connection between Alice and Bo when they first meet is very powerful. But this is not unbelievable - particularly within this kind of creative environment. Being away with a group of people can lead to fast and deeply formed friendships - particularly as Alice is impressionable, vulnerable and susceptible. But Alice's comment that after half an hour with Bo she felt "exhilarated and frightened" starts to sow the seeds of tension and prepare the reader for what really is an exhilarating and frightening relationship.
When Bo talks about Alice later, her voice quickly reveals something more to the reader - although initially I was unsure whether it was just arrogance, egotistical or something more untoward, it certainly shows that she is aware of her hold over this girl and the power that she has over her.
"I knew the effect I was having on this young woman. I made sure our eyes met as we spoke and could see her, wide eyed and attentive, and in my thrall: I was the older, wiser writer who was telling her, right here, right now, that she was brilliant."
The novel then sets off at a gallop. The blurb says Exquisite will keep you guessing and it does, but I wouldn't describe it as a book with jaw dropping twists. For me the beauty of this book was that it was a series of mini revelations, mini pieces of a puzzle that were constantly dropped in your lap and a series of moments forcing you to re-evaluate what you thought you knew. I kept changing my mind about who I trusted, who I sympathised with, where I thought the story was heading and I found the whole ride thrilling. I had suspicions and I probably did know how things would turn out in the end but I didn't want to admit it to myself as I was so absorbed in the story and the characters narratives. For me, this wasn't about 'guessing' a twist but revelling in the authors's skill, control, chacteristation and exquisite structure.
I love unreliable narrators so was delighted to find a book with two! The unreliable narrator is a great device and is cunningly well played here. This is a book about two people who misinterpret what they want, need, have and feel. It's breathless, it's exciting, it's eerie and unsettling. It's emotive and the ending is superb!
I am rating this book 5 stars. I really enjoyed this book so why shouldn't it get 5 stars?! It kept me reading, I couldn't be distracted from it and the characters got under my skin. The fact that the story goes backwards and forwards as you see things from the two different points of view and you have to piece everything together was exhilarating and made it an absolute page turning. It was clever and ambiguous, but not so much so that it distracted you from the characters.
I think this was an exquisite psychological thriller and I can't wait to see what Stovell does next as I'm sure it will knock my socks off. I highly recommend this novel!
Exquisite is published on 15th June 2017 by Orenda Books.
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