Jo and Kate met when they were eight years old, on the day their parents left them at the boarding school which was to become their term-time ‘home’ for the following ten years. Their backgrounds couldn’t have been more different. Jo, with her broad Yorkshire accent was from a loving but ‘common’ working class family. However, through establishing a successful business, her father had become one of the ‘nouveau-riche’ and wanted to give her, and her two elder brothers, the advantages of the best education money could buy. Kate was from Leicestershire, her family decidedly middle-class and wealthy; she and her sisters had ponies and she was used to the life of privilege which ‘old money’ brings. However, when they met on that first day, what they did have in common was that they were feeling equally scared and lonely in the cold, austere surroundings of St Luke’s, already homesick for their loving families. Whilst Kate appeared kind, and willing to share whatever she had with Jo, Jo felt that her friend was rather vulnerable and so promised that she’d always “look after” her.

Thirty years later, Jo is a career woman, living in a flat in Manchester and, following the very sudden death of her husband Richard, has been a widow for two years. Although she and Richard had desperately wanted children, she hadn’t become pregnant and now, still mourning his death, her life feels very empty. On the other hand, Kate appears to ‘have it all’. She’s happily married to the good-looking Tom, a highly successful, self-made businessman, lives in a comfortable old farmhouse in the Peak District and has a six-year-old daughter, Alice, to whom Jo is an adoring godmother.

Shifting between past and present, this dark, powerful and increasingly chilling story explores the friendship between Jo and Kate, gradually exposing their shared history and the nuances of their complex, interdependent relationship. The controlled, ‘drip-feed’ manner in which the author revealed this information enabled her to not only create well-developed characters, but also to increase a feeling of tension, unease and, increasingly as the story unfolded, a palpable sense of menace.

Although the story is told from Kate’s perspective, it isn’t long before the back-stories of each of the other characters is fleshed out and it becomes clear that secrets, lies and multiple layers of deception lie at the heart of their interactions. As the reader learns more about Jo and Kate’s traumatic experiences during their boarding school years, it becomes apparent what a profound and long-lasting effect they’d had. One thing which I found particularly impressive was the way in which the author hinted, right from the start, how the dynamics of what would eventually become a toxic relationship, had its roots in these earliest stages of their friendship.

In fact, there is barely a character in this story who isn’t in some way flawed and whose behaviour all too often leaves a lot to be desired! However, although I frequently found myself disliking each of them, I always felt able to understand the reasons which underlay their dysfunctional behaviour, and even to feel some sympathy for them. I also found (sometimes much to my surprise!) that my sympathies shifted as the story unfolded and I was forced to reassess what I thought I knew about each of them!

It’s difficult to reveal much about the developing plot without introducing spoilers, but some of the themes which make this such a disturbing story include childhood trauma, sexual manipulation, bullying, abuse, betrayal, envy, jealousy, loyalty and the changing nature of friendship. These themes weave their way through this cleverly plotted story, sometimes immediately obvious and shocking, sometimes more subtly revealed. The author’s elegant use of language, and the impressive pacing of her storytelling, was apparent from the earliest chapters. Her gradual revelations added twists to the story which were, for the most part, entirely credible and unexpected – and I thought the final twist was masterful! The only thing I occasionally struggled with in the storytelling was the narrative voice of the eight-year-old Jo. I know she was being portrayed as academically precocious, but I often found it difficult to find the level of her ‘sophistication’ entirely credible.

In addition to appreciating her skilful plotting, I also very much enjoyed the author’s evocative scene-setting. She very effectively captured the cold, austere and uncaring atmosphere of St Luke’s, an environment which appeared to have more in common with the harsh, rigorous regimes of certain old-style public schools than it did with the fictional, fun-filled adventures experienced by girls at Malory Towers! I’m very familiar with the area of the Peak District in which part of the story is set and I found that each of her descriptions captured the sights, smells and sounds of the area to perfection.

This is the first of Caroline England’s novels which I’ve read – but I suspect it won’t be the last!

Review by Linda Hepworth

Personal read: ****
Group read: ****

Piaktus      19th October 2020   (Imprint of Little Brown Book Group.)
ISBN: 978-0-349-42280-0     Paperback

With my thanks to the publisher and NB for a copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review.