Beth and Flora used to be best friends, but their friendship ended abruptly twelve years ago and they’ve not spoken to each other since then. However, over the years Beth has often thought about her old friend and one day, when she is driving her son Ben to his Under-14s away match, she remembers that Flora lives very close to the football ground. Although she asks herself why she should do something which is bound to dredge up painful memories, once she has dropped her son off, she cannot resist driving past Flora’s house, hoping to at least catch a glimpse of her. As she waits in her car outside the house, Flora and her children, Thomas and Emily, arrive home but as they step out of the car Beth realises there’s something terribly wrong because whilst Fiona looks the same, just a bit older, the children, who were five and three years old when she last saw them, haven’t changed at all, they still look five and three. Although Beth cannot understand it, when she hears Flora call them by their names she has to accept that they must be Thomas and Emily … but why haven’t they grown? And why is there no sign of baby Georgina?
This story follows Beth as she attempts to solve this mystery and to persuade her family, and others, that something sinister is going on. Her husband, Dom, initially thinks she shouldn’t interfere, and once numerous Instagram postings appear to show that Flora, her husband Lewis and their teenage children, are alive and well, and living in Florida, he tries to persuade her that she needs to let it go. However, Beth knows what she saw, and the fact that Georgina doesn’t appear in any of the images, makes her ever-more determined not to give up until she finds out what’s going on. However, she discovers that she has an enthusiastic and perceptive ally in her teenage daughter Zannah, who very quickly becomes as keen as her mother to uncover the truth, no matter what it takes … although some of her enthusiasm is probably generated by the fact that she will do absolutely anything to avoid having to revise for her GCSEs! As the story develops, the details of what led to the breakdown in the friendship between Beth and Flora, and the subsequent lack of contact between the two families, are gradually revealed, adding an extra psychological dimension to the mystery.
I don’t want to risk spoiling the story by giving too much detail about the direction Beth’s investigations take but I was impressed by the author’s exploration of the two major themes which are central to the plotting. One being the corrosive effects a coercive relationship can have, firstly on the victim’s self-esteem and then on their capacity to act independently, and the other being the power of friendship and loyalty. One of Sophie Hannah’s reliable strengths as a writer lies in her observations of human behaviour, so I found that each of the characters in this story was superbly well-drawn, with even the more disagreeable behaviour of some of them feeling disturbingly recognisable!
I’m a huge fan of Sophie Hannah’s writing style and so was very keen to read this stand-alone novel, confident that there would be a number of unpredictable twists and turns as the story developed. There were certainly plenty, although I do have to admit that there were moments when I found myself thinking that there aren’t many authors as capable as she at making her readers willing to suspend disbelief! However, I was happy to settle back and enjoy the roller-coaster ride, probably because I felt utterly confident that there would be a psychological integrity to the outcome of the storyline. I’ve always loved her rather gothic imagination and, although I did find the story rather slow to begin with, it soon became unputdownable and, ultimately, didn’t disappoint!
Linda Hepworth 4/4
Haven’t They Grown by Sophie Hannah
Hodder & Stoughton 9781444776188 hbk Jan 2020