I read somewhere that this book had been on the shortlist for the Deanston’s Scottish Crime Fiction Novel Of The Year (it didn’t win – the prize went to Entry Island by the rather over-rated – sorry! – Peter May) but I recalled I had it somewhere in the TBR pile. The author, Natalie Haynes, was immediately recognisable to me from The Review Show (previously Newsnight Review; now sadly defunct.) So I was keen to read her attempt at crime fiction.
Alex Morris is our main character. Her fiancee has been suddenly killed (we find out the details of what happened gradually.) Barely functioning, and desperate to get away from all the memories of Luke in London, she takes a job working in a unit for troubled children in Edinburgh, teaching drama and dramatherapy – despite having had a hugely promising career in theatre direction. Her old lecturer from Uni in Edinburgh, Robert, runs the unit (bizarre career move, but, er, whatever!), and, knowing she needs a whole different life, for a time at least, arranges the position for her.
The book concentrates entirely on her relationship with the oldest class – there’s no mention of any of the other classes. There are only five of them: Ricky, who lives with his grandparents due to his mother’s addictions, and who never seems properly clothed or fed; Jono, a chubby lad who loves computer games; Annika, whose bad behaviour results entirely from her parents’ moving from Stockholm to Scotland for her father’s job in the oil industry; and best friends Carly – who wants to be a make-up artist and treats every day as a practice run – and Mel, who is deaf, and angry at her divorced parents.
Alex manages to get her class interested in studying Greek tragedy, with it’s huge themes like sacrifice, retribution, death, revenge, war, and the inevitability of fate. Such extreme ideas work well with the teenagers, who’s hidden and extreme passions make the plays a good fit.
But Alex makes some small – but foolish – revelations to her class regarding her past, and Luke, and as a result some of the class become fascinated by what happened to him – and to her. They wonder why, after they follow her, Alex travels to London every Friday, to sit alone in a café for three hours, then return to Edinburgh.
One of her pupils, though, is taking the obsession further. Some work on the internet, and a snatched glance at something crucial, and they think they understand Alex, and her feelings, and intentions. Inspired by her tragedy-themed lectures, and full of thoughts of fate creating a perfect circle, they embark on a plan…one which will prove fatal…
This is a great first novel, and the premise is fantastic. Natalie Haynes is especially good at creating dialogue, particularly that of the Edinburgh teenagers – it takes an excellent ear to get any dialogue bang-on; teenagers, with their in-words, slang and regional dialect, are very difficult. Sometimes they sounded not unlike my children! The classes Alex holds come across as natural and plausible. Sympathetic, but idealistic Robert, and his long-term partner, and Alex’s reverend mother who struggles to understand her daughter’s devastation, make for interesting and unclichéd secondary characters. And, as always, the backdrop of Edinburgh is a great fit, and clearly a city the author knows and loves.
This isn’t a who-dunnit, and that’s very clear from the start of the book. It moves back-and-forth between Before and After the climactic event, slowly teasing out the whole story. At the climax, it’s like watching a car crash you know is about to happen and are unable to prevent…
My only criticism is of the end – there’s an exchange of letters I find unnecessary and implausible, and also a hint of a happy ever after – so predictable! I’d have preferred it to end earlier, on a less neat-and-tidy note, and be more ambiguous about the characters’ futures. But you can’t have everything.
I think anyone who enjoys a slightly unusual crime novel, with more of a psychological aspect, would love this highly accomplished debut – and I’ll definitely be looking out for her next book!
4 out of 5.