An unexpected visitor.
A devastating secret.
Do we get the children we deserve?
This is quite an incredible book. It is a psychological thriller in the most psychological sense -it is a novel that investigates psychology, psychosis and mental health. It is about deception, manipulation and motivation. It is a novel that debates the concept of 'evil' and whether we get the children we deserve.
It is also highly readable and a story of marriage, families, trust, secrets and lies. It is exciting, dramatic, well paced and leaps off the page with exquisitely timed revelations and twists. It's a psychological thriller in the commercial sense of the word as well and follows the conventions of the domestic noir genre.
The story is told from the point of view of Cat, a child psychologist who has suffered first hand with psychosis following the birth of her first and only child. When the police turn up on the doorstep late at night with a child she neither knows or recognises, she is shocked to hear that this 'macabre' looking girl is in fact her husband's daughter.
I loved that Cat then pre-empted the reader by saying how "worn and unoriginal" this announcement was and her almost sense of apathy to be part of a "clapped out tale of faithless husband led on by some mysterious femme fatale". She even tells us that if we saw it on TV, "we'd reach for the remote". Well, I didn't and you won't. There is nothing unoriginal about this novel and I was already too invested in Cat's character to not want to read on. McGrath had already hinted at a murkier past, an intriguing issue at work and tension within the family within the opening pages. Even before the arrival of this mysterious girl, later to be named as Ruby Winter, I knew this was going to be a complex and compelling tale.
The main hook of the novel is that powerful 'what if' question. What if a girl turns up on your doorstep claiming to be the daughter of your faithful husband? What if your marriage is strained because you always wanted a second child and now, whatever the circumstances, you have one? What if you then become anxious about the behaviour of this girl and believe she is a threat to the family you have worked so hard to create? What if yourself and your husband had been trundling along hoping that the cracks between you were invisible but now, under these pressures, can you still ignore them? This novel will intrigue it's readers because it takes one ordinary couple and propels them into a nightmare - we watch almost vicariously, captivated by a family that shouldn't find itself in this situation or the things that come next, but does.
McGrath is an accomplished writer and she understands tension, suspense, pace and the delight of a cliffhanger at the end of a short chapter. We have a disturbed child and we have a child psychologist left to parent her - Cat should be an expert in dealing with her, she should have an overwhelming maternal and professional instinct to protect this child. But she doesn't. She can't.
Cat is brutally honest and I think that is why I related to her so quickly and believed in her. As the events in the story begin to unfold, she takes the time out to admit that perhaps herself and Tim were being a little shortsighted about the truth of their marriage and perhaps should acknowledge that the cracks that were becoming more visible. Cat's metaphor that their marriage is no long built of bricks and mortar but like a tent with threadbare patches was very effective and an excellent image to help establish an honest and truthful picture of their relationship. The fact that McGrath takes time to describe Cat's thoughts and feelings means she establishes a very three dimensional character and prepares us for a story that is not only dramatic and captivating in terms action but also going to be one that is provokes a deeper discussion about individuals, responsibility, judgement and consequence.
Cat is also very honest about Ruby who has been rescued from a deeply traumatic situation and placed with them for safe keeping yet "my heart is full of contradictory feelings, resenting yet feeling sorry for them." Are Tim and Cat strong enough to weather the storm? I liked the dilemma Cat faces as there is a contradiction between her professional knowledge and understanding of the situation and her personal reaction to it.
The increasing hostility between Tim and Cat is painful to read and impossible not to react to. Tim is reluctant to see that Ruby's behaviour or emotional reaction to her situation is concerning. He is reluctant to find Ruby's grandmother so she can go and live with her. The pages are full of 'unsaid things' and suspicions. It's claustrophobic, it's intense, it's relentless and it captures Cat's mental and emotional turmoil incredibly effectively. I was shocked, surprised and gripped by the relationship between Cat and Tim and the observations, reflections and dialogue felt powerfully real and authentic.
I felt sympathetic towards Cat who is in the unique position of having suffered from mental health issues, now works with others suffering from mental health issues. When her life is put under extreme pressure, she is judged because the assumption is that perhaps she is falling ill again. She can't ever escape the negative label of having suffered a breakdown before and I liked McGrath's sensitive handling of this as well as her eye for dramatic tension as it challenges the reader to consider whether we can trust Cat, whether she is ill or not. Cat's judgement is never fully trusted by others which increases the suspense and sense of threat for her and for the reader.
"A wide, deep, irreparable chasm had opened up in the landscape of our marriage and Tome and I were teetering on the edge."
Alongside the investigation into Ruby's past and the relationship between Cat and Tim, is the storyline of Emma and Christopher Barron's son who is a client of Cat's. This secondary storyline gradually gains momentum and purpose as it collides with the main storyline. There are also flashbacks and references to previous cases that Cat has been involved in which are used again to challenge the reader's perception of Cat and to try and usurp her as a reliable narrator and rational person. The other thread that is important is the rioting that is happening around them and the social unrest. This novel is a comment on our society now, at this very moment in time. Not only is an exploration of marriage and motherhood but it is also about truth, trust and a post truth world.
"In a world when you might, on any morning, wake up to a financial crash or to rioting ......[you'd be] nuts not to have trust issues."
This is a really interesting question that McGrath raises again and again in her story. This novel is so contemporary, so clearly placed in our very recent history that these questions could not be more pertinent and I admired the way McGrath could tell us a great fictional tale at the same time as raising these sociological concerns. In the novel, the instability and uncertainty on the streets reflects the mental state of the characters. And in the pages of her novel, McGrath reflects, echoes and explores the questions and fears readers have about the future and about how far we can trust what we see.
As I said already, I liked that Cat had had a mental illness but did not have one now. She is a fighter, she is brave. She is not the unreliable narrator we are expecting. I was with Cat the whole time. I was involved, invested and rooting for her and watched with horror as her world falls apart. I loved her passion for motherhood, her intuition, her determination and found her 'journey' incredibly dramatic, exciting and thought provoking.
Give Me The Child has several very well timed revelations; it has moments of clarity and many twists. There is a mystery to solve about Ruby, there are dark secrets to uncover and there are several families to keep safe. There is a multilayering of manipulation and deceit and it is a page turner. But this novel is also an exploration of the minds of damaged, vengeful, dangerous people and why they are behaving in this way. There is a discussion of 'evil' and the sound bite that resonates through the pages that "we get the children we deserve" is very emotive and controversial. This book will satisfy any fan of mainstream thrillers and psychological thrillers but I think what makes this book stand out from the crowd, is the character of Cat and the fact that the book takes the psychological thriller to a higher level.
I thoroughly enjoyed Give Me the Child and heartily recommend!
Give Me The Child is published on 27th July by HQ.
For more recommendations and reviews follow me on Twitter @KatherineSunde3 or via my website
AND HERE"S AN EXTRACT FROM GIVE ME THE CHILD TO ENJOY TOO!!
My first thought when the doorbell woke me was that someone had died. Most likely Michael Walsh. I turned onto my side, pulled at the outer corners of my eyes to rid them of the residue of sleep and blinked myself awake. It was impossible to tell if it was late or early, though the bedroom was as hot and muggy as it had been when Tom and I had gone to bed. Tom was no longer beside me. Now I was alone.
We’d started drinking not long after Freya had gone upstairs. The remains of a bottle of Pinot Grigio for me, a glass or two of red for Tom. (He always said white wine was for women.) Just before nine I called The Mandarin Hut. When the crispy duck arrived I laid out two trays in the living room, opened another bottle and called Tom in from the study. I hadn’t pulled the curtains and through the pink light of the London night sky a cat’s claw of moon appeared. The two of us ate, mostly in silence, in front of the TV. A ballroom dance show came on. Maybe it was just the booze but something about the tight-muscled men and the frou-frou’d women made me feel a little sad. The cosmic dance. The grand romantic gesture. At some point even the tight-muscled men and the frou-frou’d women would find themselves slumped together on a sofa with the remains of a takeaway and wine enough to sink their sorrows, wondering how they’d got there, wouldn’t they?
Not that Tom and I really had anything to complain about except, maybe, a little malaise, a kind of falling away. After all, weren’t we still able to laugh about stuff most of the time or, if we couldn’t laugh, at least have sex and change the mood?
‘Let’s go upstairs and I’ll show you my cha-cha,’ I said, rising and holding out a hand.
Tom chuckled and pretended I was joking, then, wiping his palms along his thighs as if he were ridding them of something unpleasant, he said, ‘It’s just if I don’t crack this bloody coding thing…’
I looked out at the moon for a moment. OK, so I knew how much making a success of Labyrinth meant to Tom, and I’d got used to him shutting himself away in the two or three hours either side of midnight. But this one time, with the men and women still twirling in our minds? Just this one time?
Stupidly, I said, ‘Won’t it wait till tomorrow?’ and in an instant
I saw Tom stiffen. He paused for a beat and, slapping his hands on his thighs in a gesture of busyness, he slugged down the last of his wine, rose from the sofa and went to the door. And so we left it there with the question still hanging.
I spent the rest of the evening flipping through the case notes of patients I was due to see that week. When I turned in for the night, the light was still burning in Tom’s study. I murmured ‘goodnight’ and went upstairs to check on Freya. Our daughter was suspended somewhere between dreaming and deep sleep. All children look miraculous when they’re asleep, even the frighten- ing, otherworldly ones I encounter every day. Their bodies soften, their small fists unfurl and dreams play behind their eyelids. But Freya looked miraculous all the time to me. Because she was. A miracle made at the boundary where human desire meets science. I stood and watched her for a while, then, retrieving her beloved Pippi Longstocking book from the floor and straightening her duvet, I crept from the room and went to bed.
Sometime later I felt Tom’s chest pressing against me and his breath on the nape of my neck. He was already aroused and for a minute I wondered what else he’d been doing on screen besides coding, then shrugged off the thought. A drowsy, half-hearted bout of lovemaking followed before we drifted into our respective oblivions. Next thing I knew the doorbell was ringing and I was alone.
Under the bathroom door a beam of light blazed. I threw off the sheet and swung from the bed.
No response. My mind was scrambled with sleep and an anxious pulse was rising to the surface. I called out again.
There was a crumpling sound followed by some noisy vomiting but it was identifiably my husband. The knot in my throat loosened. I went over to the bathroom door, knocked and let myself in. Tom was hunched over the toilet and there was a violent smell in the room.
‘Someone’s at the door.’ Tom’s head swung round.
I said, ‘You think it might be about Michael?’
Tom’s father, Michael Walsh, was a coronary waiting to happen, a lifelong bon vivant in the post-sixty-five-year-old death zone, who’d taken the recent demise of his appalling wife pretty badly.
Tom stood up, wiped his hand across his mouth and moved over to the sink. ‘Nah, probably just some pisshead.’ He turned on the tap and sucked at the water in his hand and, in an oddly casual tone, he added, ‘Ignore it.’
As I retreated into the bedroom, the bell rang again. Whoever it was, they weren’t about to go away. I went over to the window and eased open the curtain. The street was still and empty of people, and the first blank glimmer was in the sky. Directly below the house a patrol car was double parked, hazard lights still on but otherwise dark. For a second my mind filled with the terrible possibility that something had happened to Sally. Then I checked myself. More likely someone had reported a burglary or a prowler in the neighbourhood. Worst case it was Michael.
‘It’s the police,’ I said.
Tom appeared and, lifting the sash, craned out of the window. ‘I’ll go, you stay here.’
I watched him throw on his robe over his boxers and noticed his hands were trembling. Was that from having been sick or was he, too, thinking about Michael now? I listened to his footsteps disappearing down the stairs and took my summer cover-up from its hook. A moment later, the front door swung open and there came the low murmur of three voices, Tom’s and those of two women. I froze on the threshold of the landing and held my breath, waiting for Tom to call me down, and when, after a few minutes, he still hadn’t, I felt myself relax a little. My parents were dead. If this was about Sally, Tom would have fetched me by now. It was bound to be Michael. Poor Michael.
I went out onto the landing and tiptoed over to Freya’s room. Tom often said I was overprotective, and maybe I was, but I’d seen enough mayhem and weirdness at work to give me pause. I pushed open the door and peered in. A breeze stirred from the open window. The hamster Freya had brought back from school for the holidays was making the rounds on his wheel but in the aura cast by the Frozen-themed nightlight I could see my tender little girl’s face closed in sleep. Freya had been too young to remember my parents and Michael had always been sweet to her in a way that his wife, who called her ‘my little brown granddaughter’, never was, but it was better this happened now, in the summer holidays, so she’d have time to recover before the pressures of school started up again. We’d tell her in the morning once we’d had time to formulate the right words.
At the top of the landing I paused, leaning over the bannister. A woman in police uniform stood in the glare of the security light. Thirties, with fierce glasses and a military bearing. Beside her was another woman in jeans and a shapeless sweater, her features hidden from me. The policewoman’s face was brisk but unsmiling; the other woman was dishevelled, as though she had been called from her bed. Between them I glimpsed the auburn top of what I presumed was a child’s head – a girl, judging from the amount of hair. I held back, unsure what to do, hoping they’d realise they were at the wrong door and go away. I could see the police officer’s mouth moving without being able to hear what was being said. The conversation went on and after a few moments Tom stood to one side and the two women and the child stepped out of the shadows of the porch and into the light of the hallway.
The girl was about the same age as Freya, taller but small-boned, legs as spindly as a deer’s and with skin so white it gave her the look of some deep sea creature. She was wearing a grey trackie too big for her frame which bagged at the knees from wear and made her seem malnourished and unkempt. From the way she held herself, stiffly and at a distance from the dishevelled woman, it was obvious they didn’t know one another. A few ideas flipped through my mind. Had something happened in the street, a house fire perhaps, or a medical emergency, and a neighbour needed us to look after her for a few hours? Or was she a school friend of Freya’s who had run away and for some reason given our address to the police? Either way, the situation obviously didn’t have anything much to do with us. My heart went out to the kid but I can’t say I wasn’t relieved. Michael was safe, Sally was safe.
I moved down the stairs and into the hallway. The adults remained engrossed in their conversation but the girl looked up and stared. I tried to place the sharp features and the searching, amber eyes from among our neighbours or the children at Freya’s school but nothing came. She showed no sign of recognising me. I could see she was tired – though not so much from too little sleep as from a lifetime of watchfulness. It was an expression familiar to me from the kids I worked with at the clinic. I’d probably had it too, at her age. An angry, cornered look. She was clasping what looked like a white rabbit’s foot in her right hand. The cut end emerged from her fist, bound crudely with electrical wire which was attached to a key. It looked home-made and this lent it – and her – an air that was both outdated and macabre, as if she’d been beamed in from some other time and had found herself stranded here, in south London, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, in the middle of the night, with nothing but a rabbit’s foot and a key to remind her of her origins. ‘What’s up?’ I said, more out of curiosity than alarm. I smile and waited for an answer.
The two women glanced awkwardly at Tom and from the way he was standing, stiffly with one hand slung on his hip in an attempt at relaxed cool, I understood they were waiting for him to respond and I instinctively knew that everything I’d been thinking was wrong. A dark firework burst inside my chest. The girl in the doorway was neither a neighbour’s kid nor a friend of our daughter.
She was trouble.
I took a step back. ‘Will someone tell me what’s going on?’ When no one spoke I crouched to the girl’s level and, summoning as much friendliness as I could, said, ‘What’s your name? Why are you here?’
The girl’s eyes flickered to Tom, then, giving a tiny, contemptu- ous shake of the head, as if by her presence all my questions had already been answered and I was being obstructive or just plain dumb, she said, ‘I’m Ruby Winter.’
I felt Tom’s hands on my shoulder. They were no longer trem- bling so much as hot and spasmic.
‘Cat, please go and make some tea. I’ll come in a second.’
There was turmoil in his eyes. ‘Please,’ he repeated. And so, not knowing what else to do, I turned on my heels and made for the kitchen.
While the kettle wheezed into life, I sat at the table in a kind of stupor; too shocked to gather my thoughts, I stared at the clock as the red second hand stuttered towards the upright. Tock, tock, tock. There were voices in the hallway, then I heard the living room door shut. Time trudged on. I began to feel agitated. What was taking all this time? Why hadn’t Tom come? Part of me felt I had left the room already but here I was still. Eventually, footsteps echoed in the hallway. The door moved and Tom appeared. I stood up and went over to the counter where, what now seemed like an age ago, I had laid out a tray with the teapot and some mugs.
‘Sit down, darling, we need to talk.’ Darling. When was the last time he’d called me that?
I heard myself saying, idiotically, ‘But I made tea!’ ‘It’ll wait.’ He pulled up a chair directly opposite me.
When he spoke, his voice came to me like the distant crackle of a broken radio in another room. ‘I’m so sorry, Cat, but however I say this it’s going to come as a terrible shock, so I’m just going to say what needs to be said, then we can talk. There’s no way round this. The girl, Ruby Winter, she’s my daughter.’