This novel opens with Violet in Beijing. She’s been travelling the world – it’s not clear for how long – and has recently split from her boyfriend, Sam. In Thailand, Sam wanted to stay longer and party while Violet wanted to keep to their agreed itinerary. He stayed, falling in with a bunch of German travellers, drinking and partying, while she continued on alone without him. In Beijing, Violet meets Carrie, another lone woman traveller of about the same age, who has two tickets for the Trans-Siberian Railway. Carrie is also travelling alone due to unforeseen disaster, though in her case it was that her travelling companion, her best friend Laura, broke her leg on a drunken night out just days before their departure. Carrie gives Violet her spare ticket and the two embark on their rail journey.
This is a psychological thriller and it soon transpires that both women have their secrets. The bulk of the narrative is told from Violet’s perspective, and she is the person with the most to hide, but it’s never really clear who is playing who. They develop an abnormally intense relationship, though again it’s never clear whether this is all in Violet’s mind and if Carrie feels the same way. Encounters with others become battlegrounds between the two where they assert superiority and try to find out more about each other.
The settings of the Trans-Siberian Railway are vividly brought to life and there are various stops along the way. The train stops in Mongolia and Irkutsk, both of which are well described. Later, the characters travel to Moscow, and then on to Berlin, both locations also brought to life. It was no surprise to discover that the author travelled the Trans-Siberian Railway when younger and she clearly knows the locations well.
At heart this is about how well we can know others, and how strangers we meet have the potential to be anybody. It’s also about friendship and obsession. This novel reminded me very much of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley, as just as in that novel, the characters adopt personas to please those they want to impress, with dark and sinister consequences.
If I have one criticism, and it’s very much a personal one, it’s that I was a little disappointed with the denouement. But this wasn’t that it was poorly written, but rather that the character who got their comeuppance I had enjoyed spending time with! As the narrative unfolds, they’re revealed to be deliciously wicked, and in the same way that readers have been drawn into rooting for Tom Ripley or Hannibal Lector, I kinda hoped this character would get away with it and perhaps even return for a future adventure. But who knows, perhaps they still might. There is after all a passing reference to Rosalind House, the commune that features in the author’s previous novel, The Lingering, so it’s always possible that the character concerned might feature in the author’s future work.
I really enjoyed Violet. This is a great novel. I’m not a massive fan of traditional psychological thrillers, the domestic noir that’s so popular these days, but SJI Holliday is crafting psychological suspense that branches away from such territory and the result is very enjoyable books that have kept me eagerly turning the pages.
ames Pierson 5/5
Violet by SJI Holliday
Orenda Books 9781912374854 pbk Nov 2019