When Sadie and her husband Andrew moved to Brooklyn, she believed she’d never want to return to London. Her relationship with her mother had never been good, in fact from when Sadie was twelve-years-old her cold and controlling mother had insisted that she should call her Lydia – ‘not Mummy. Certainly not Mum’. The final time she’d been in her childhood home had been ten years earlier when, following a major confrontation, she’d sworn she would never go back, would never allow her mother to control her again. When Lydia had died eight years later, Sadie discovered that she would not be allowed to inherit the family home, nor the small income from her mother’s estate, unless she sent her daughter Robin to Ashams, the private school Sadie had gone to, and had hated. By setting up an unbreakable trust, her mother was exerting control, even from the grave. However, with competition for places at Asham being so keen, even had Sadie and Andrew been prepared to return to London, she was relieved to discover that there wasn’t a place available. Anyway, they were happy living in Brooklyn and Robin loved her school, where she had a group of close friends.
However, two years on Sadie’s marriage has failed, and the last thing Andrew had said to her was “Just go, I don’t want you here anymore. Either of you.” It was at that point that Sadie had received a call from the admissions officer telling her that a place in the Year Six class had unexpectedly become available, but only if ten-year-old Robin could start immediately. There appeared to be no choice other than to accept it, although Sadie felt unable to tell her daughter why they’ve had to leave Brooklyn so suddenly, or why Andrew wouldn’t be coming with them. Nor can she tell Robin how much she hates the thought of living once more in her mother’s dark, uncared for house, with its ivy-covered walls and all the unpleasant memories it holds.
Life is suddenly full of change for Sadie. In addition to attempting to create comfortable home for her daughter and convince her that she’ll be happy at the school once she settles in and makes new friends, she also needs to find a job. Although she hasn’t practised for ten years, she decides to approach her old chambers and try to pick up her career as a criminal barrister. However, there is one positive aspect to returning to London, she’ll be reunited with Zora, her old school friend who had shared her hatred of Asham’s.
From the opening pages of this dark psychological thriller it’s immediately obvious that there’s a complex web of secrets and lies to be uncovered before the reader will discover the truth about Sadie’s past. As she and Robin try to settle in to what feels like an unwelcoming house and as they face the challenges of a new job and a new school, they both struggle to adapt. When she takes her much-loved daughter to school on the first morning of term, the sight of the old buildings brings unwelcome memories flooding back, a familiar sense of not belonging is reinforced when she is physically brushed aside by a couple of the other mothers. Then, when she picks Robin up at the end of the afternoon it’s clear that her daughter is feeling equally isolated and unwelcome.
As the days pass, being ignored allows Sadie to work out who’s who in the hierarchy of mothers at the school gates, most of whom are old girls of Asham’s but have no idea that so too is she. There is considerable speculation about why Robin was offered a place at the school and when the head of the PTA and the ‘queen bee’ of the most powerful clique takes against Sadie, her influence is such that the others follow her lead. On one level Sadie is able to ignore them but, with Robin so clearly suffering as a result of being bullied and ostracised, she decides she must to try to fit in and play her part, even though her ability to participate in daytime events is limited because she, unlike the others, is a working mother. Her new job, as a junior defence barrister in a case involving Jeremy, a teacher accused of sexually-grooming Freya, one of his under-age pupils, is demanding but is also satisfying because it allows her to find some escape from all the other pressures she’s facing.
With its multiple strands, its constant twists and turns and its excellent characterisations, I found this a compelling, disturbing and, for the most part, convincing story. I admired the way in which the author controlled the drip-feed of information and, with constant twists and turns, gradually revealed the web of secrets and lies which underpinned the tight plotting of the story. From the start it was clear that no one was quite what they seemed and that nothing could be taken for granted. This meant that an ever-increasing tension was created, adding a disturbing and relentless quality to the story-telling. It would be comfortable to think that her portrayals of the over-privileged school-gate mothers were caricatures but I found them all too easily recognisable! She convincingly captured the toxic nature of the ultra-competitiveness of some of these mothers and their willingness to use their daughters as pawns to be manipulated in the pursuit of personal aspirations. There were many moments when I found myself feeling angry and indignant about the power they were able to exert to exclude and undermine anyone who didn’t fit the ‘norms’ of their clique. Fortunately, there were also moments of delicious, almost farce-like humour, when the author lampooned her characters’ behaviour!
The strand of the story which follows Sadie’s role as a member of the defence team representing Jeremy is equally compelling. Riven with lies and the potential for scandal, it too shines a light on the lengths to which people will go to protect their self-interests. Examples of abuse of power, coercive, manipulative, and sometimes corrupt, behaviour abound in this part of the story and feel all too familiar. It’s impossible to illustrate this without introducing spoilers but, yet again, all the characters, including Jeremy’s middle-class parent, with their ‘Establishment’ links, were well-observed, as were the twists and turns in the gradual revelations about what happened between Jeremy and Freya. The author’s experiences as a barrister meant that her descriptions of the courtroom scenes felt convincingly authentic and gripping.
As I mentioned earlier, it was a given throughout the story that nothing was ever quite as it seemed and this wrong-footing of the reader continued to the very last page, which revealed a chilling, quite brilliant final twist. I haven’t read the author’s debut novel, Blood Orange, but now feel keen to do so.
With thanks to NB and the publisher for a copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review.
Reviewed by Linda Hepworth
Personal read: 4*
Group read: 4*
Wildfire (imprint of Headline Publishing Group) 14th July 2020
ISBN: 978-1-4722-5280-7 Trade paperback