A Scottish woman’s psychological history causes her to question her sanity.
Ali and Marco McGovern are refugees from success. Both had flourishing businesses, but Marco’s highflying ambitions crashed, forcing them to sell everything and move with their 15-year-old son, Angelo, to a grungy cottage in Galloway, where Marco announces he’s found a possible job for Ali at Howell Hall, a mental institution looking for a beautician and art therapist. Despite having owned a beauty salon, Ali knows she doesn’t have the credentials, but she lets Marco pad her resume and is hired by Dr. Ferris for a salary large enough to make her suspicious. Marco too finds a job, but their celebrations end when a long-dead body is found at the nearby abbey. The police question Angelo, who often hangs out on the grounds, but can’t charge him because he was only 3 when the unidentified man was murdered. Now the boy's typical teen problems are compounded by a cruel joke played by a girl he fancies. Ali quickly makes friends with most of the Howell Hall staff but not the coldly efficient Dr. Ferris, who leaves the treatment of patients almost entirely to her husband. Ali’s drawn to Sylvie, a young woman who’s been almost catatonic for 15 years but seems taken with her. Another patient with a compelling story is Julia, who claims to have killed her father but seems at times almost too rational. Upset over Angelo’s problems with the police, Ali is aggravated by her husband’s and son's insistence that she keep calm and starts to have doubts about Marco’s reasons for getting her a job she is not equipped to do. She does not understand and is deeply hurt by an estrangement from her parents, which adds another layer to the mystery, and her stressful work makes her worry about her own mental problems, stemming from a breakdown 10 years ago. McPherson is a master at creating psychological tension and doubt about the motives of her characters, so it is no surprise that Ali thinks she hears sounds in her head and is constantly trying to overcome the sense that maybe she is actually going mad. The more details of her earlier breakdown become clear, the harder McPherson makes it to decide whether she’s mentally ill or being cruelly manipulated by unknown people for obscure reasons that will be uncovered in the denouement.
Although the idea isn’t original, the clever way McPherson (Quiet Neighbors, 2016, etc.) reveals each hint of the truth makes this a one-sitting read.