You Were Made For This by Michelle Sacks

by Michelle Sacks 

At CrimeFest I was lucky enough to see Michelle Sacks speak on two panels and I knew after listening to her that I really had to make reading her book a priority. Sacks is a highly articulate, intelligent speaker and even though I was already intrigued by the premise of the book, hearing her talk in more depth about her characters, the issues she wanted to explore and the themes that interest her, I knew this was a novel that I had to read. 

As Sacks herself also admitted, the characters in You Were Made For This are not particularly likeable. The subject matter is challenging. The themes are thought provoking. The crime is terrible. There are scenes of great trauma and there is plenty to make the reader feel uncomfortable and uneasy. But, there is something completely fascinating about this book. Whether it's the fact it asks lots of questions about parenting, friendships, marriage, deception, lies and mental illness or whether it's because ultimately it's a crime thriller, and you can't stop reading because you need to know the truth about what really happened and whether justice will be done, I don't know...but you will keep reading. And then, you'll stay haunted. For days. 

This is a bold novel. This is a novel of our time. It echoes themes and ideas from The Slap, Lullaby and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. It plays on our fears that life is more fragile than we care to admit and that we are more vulnerable than ever. It reminds us that we lie to each other every day through our social media feed, through our conversations with acquaintances and worse still, maybe we lie to ourselves. 

Told alternately from the points of view of Merry and then Sam, the story starts in an idyllic house in a Swedish wood. A life away from the rat race, a life full of homemade jam, wholesome meals, quality time focussing on just the three of them as they build a life with their new born baby. Bliss. 

'If you saw us you'd probably hate us," says the opening line. Well, yes, probably! The chapters are very short but even by chapter two I had had enough of both of Merry and Sam. I'm not really interested in reading about perfection - a woman who spends her day joyfully preparing hand blended organic vegetable meals for a baby, keeping a spotless house, relishing in a simple lifestyle with rustic home cooking and spending the evening with a chilled glass of wine on the veranda, congratulating themselves on their perfect fairy tale family life. Blergh. No thanks. So you can imagine my huge relief to turn to chapter 3 and realise that actually there is nothing perfect about this set up at all. There is nothing perfect about Merry or Sam or their Swedish home. In fact, there is something incredibly disturbing, dangerous and dark about this couple.

From this point onward, Sacks creates an oppressive atmosphere of tension and threat. The characters remain difficult to like because even though there are sudden slips of the shiny facade, even though there are recurring unchecked remarks, acknowledgements of their unhappiness, they are unable to fully admit the reality of what is happening. The prose is (deliberately) jerky as both Merry and Sam try to maintain the image of perfection and are swift to cover or retract or deny anything that might mean they have to confront or face the truth. They have pretended for so long that they sometimes seem to be pretending to each other without even realising. The level of self denial and unreliability as narrators is incredible and makes for intense, yet intriguing reading. Sacks indeed is masterful in her prose and clearly incredibly clever because our reactions to Sam and Merry are so powerful and so emotive we cannot help but engage with this story. 

There are also many subtleties at work in this novel and it probably deserves a second read, if I can bring myself to live through this nightmare again. The use of a remote forest setting increases the sense of oppression, claustrophobia (despite the open space) and isolation both physically and emotionally. The fact the baby is so often referred to as 'the baby' yet all the characters claim he is the centre of their world, the one thing they want and love beyond anything else, yet their actions don't match the words. The rhythm of the prose and Merry's own allusions to fairy tales in the opening pages is full of double meaning. The prose is bare, taut and stripped back creating a story that hides nothing, shocks the reader with its bluntness, and is incredibly powerful. 

We are introduced to a new voice part way through the novel when Frances, Merry's childhood friend arrives to stay with them. Surely this is the time for Merry to confess all is not as picture postcard as they claim? Surely everyone has one person to whom they feel they can be their true self? Oh, it appears not. Sam and Merry have invested too much in this carefully constructed fairy tale. They've deluded themselves along with the rest of the world. So the arrival of Frances injects a whole new level of tension to the plot and prose.

Frances is clever. And she's known Merry a long time. And she's living with them. It's not long before the dark cracks appear in the over polished shiny facade and things start to fracture. But them surely Frances is therefore a fairy godmother? A true friend who can help Merry and save her from her torment and her post natal depression? Think again. 

This truly is a dark, and distressing story. Treacherous and traumatic. 

Comparisons have been made with Lullaby and they are fair, as would be a comparison with The Slap. But Sacks' novel is perhaps more raw, more brutal and more uncomfortable. There is delusion but this isn't just a couple who know they are turning a blind eye, this is a couple who are actively emotionally destroying each other through their behaviour and games. Sam, Merry and Frances are all deluded, all with skewed motivations, all suffering on some level with mental health issues and all redefining the word toxic. The writing is bleak. Even the secondary characters are suffering loss, tragedy and pain they can't share openly. 

I'm not sure whether I can use the word 'enjoy' with this novel, maybe fascinated, or captivated but something made me stay up too late on too many nights to read it. Something compelled me to know what happened to Merry, Sam and Frances. And these characters found their way into my head. I was in the house, in the wood, watching from the shadows, trying to see what I wasn't being shown, trying to work out how they would be redeemed or saved. 

You Were Made for This asks challenging questions about modern day parenting, motherhood, marriage and perception. The characters are incredibly morally complex and the issues and themes in this novel are bold but honest. The short chapters, the fast pace and the accomplished prose makes this an accessible thriller about a desperate crime but it's also a novel some will find hard to read. Although the word 'perfect' is mocked throughout this book, I think it's safe to say the prose is perfect and Sacks' turn of phrase has produced a haunting and unforgettable debut novel. 

Clever, disturbing and brutal, I recommend this nightmarish tale of one family's life. 

You Were Made For This publishes on 28th June 2018. 


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