Reading can be a subjective business. Obviously, choice of genre plays a massive part, but there are subtle, sometimes even unconscious, decisions we make when selecting a novel: first person narrative versus third or authorial; written in the past or present tense – everyone brings their own preferences to the table. And, often, those decisions will govern our enjoyment or otherwise of a story.
In my day job I’m paid to be objective. Personal taste doesn’t enter into it at all. So when I read for pleasure I admit I’m picky and, lately, I’ve become ruthless. If I fail to engage with, ‘get’ or even like a story or main protagonist within sixty or so pages, as painful as it is, I abandon it. When I say ‘pain’ I mean it because, as a writer myself, I appreciate exactly how much work goes into the creation of a well-crafted story. But all’s fair in love and writing and I, too,recognise that my own work is not everyone’s cappuccino.
Back to my reading habits: even ‘next best things’ and books acclaimed by others have been quietly put away. It’s not a reflection on the story or the skill of the writer, but a reflection on what rocks my personal boat. This is a very long-winded way of me saying that, having dumped two novels to read for pleasure in the past couple of months, I selected one from my extensive pile of ‘unreads’ and one I’d meant to read a year ago: Sophie Hannah’s first standalone novel, ‘A Game For All the Family.’
The novel is described as a domestic thriller with psychological quirks. ‘Quirks’ implies something peculiar. Downright strange is nearer the mark and in the most glorious way for Hannah is genius at messing with people’s minds and I don’t mean simply the characters. After reading a twist that I never saw coming in the final pages (and I pride myself on spotting the big reversal) I needed to lie down in a darkened room. How the hell did she pull it off, I wondered. Oh, and I haven’t even started on the story within a story element.
Without spoilers, a basic précis is as follows: Justine Merrison is a burnt out TV executive in search of the quiet life in Devon, her one aim to do absolutely nothing, which proves to be a lot harder than one would think. Her teenage daughter, Ellen, settles in at a rather alternative school where she becomes best friends with George. Mothers are prone to rummaging through their child’s homework and Justine is no exception. To her horror, she discovers that Ellen is writing a murder story. So what? Except that the murder is set in the family’s new home.
Throw in anonymous calls from a stranger with threats to dig three graves – one for Justine, Ellen and husband, Alex – she rightly fears for her safety. With a lack lustre response from the police, it’s down to Justine to find not only the person endangering her family but the murderer in Ellen’s story. It’s a heart-stopping case of fiction meshing with reality.
Hannah captures the peculiarities of family dynamics with flair. Location ticked my personal box because, having lived in Devon for eighteen years, I know the area well, but where she really scores for me is her ability to persuade the reader of what seems, on the surface, something implausible. For feats of imagination and wicked psychological insight, she deserves her title as ‘Queen of Psychological Crime.’
‘A GAME FOR ALL THE FAMILY’ is published by Hodder & Stoughton