Unmoored and self-harming, the heroine of British novelist Baker’s (Longbourn, 2013, etc.) disturbing first novel—appearing for the first time in the U.S.—is caught in a suffocating downward spiral.
Offcomers are misfits, rootless souls, not locals, and Claire Thomas has become one of them. The only child of a fostered mother and a loving father silenced by illness, Claire grew up in the north of England alongside confident BFF Jennifer, but that relatively normal early life has evolved into an isolated, drifting adulthood. As an awkward student at Oxford University, she met another lonely soul, philosophy student Alan, and after graduation followed him to his hometown of Belfast in Northern Ireland. There, in an uncertain political climate, Claire finds herself living in a punitive relationship, working a dead-end job. One particularly repugnant sex act leads to Claire’s moving out of Alan’s cramped flat and into a friend’s spare room, but she’s scarcely happier there, sleeping with the friend’s boyfriend and repeatedly cutting herself with a razor blade. While Baker’s intense debut lays down markers for the sensitively imagined novels to follow, this closely detailed first work is often bleak, and Claire’s insecurity can make for difficult reading. Eventually, while she’s on a desperate trip home to her parents, secrets about the past are broken open during a confrontation with Claire’s mother over a photo album, her mother’s sole pre-fostering possession that hints at but doesn’t confirm family connections. This burst of honesty, alongside acts of unexpected kindness by her Belfast boss, is enough to alter the balance of Claire’s sense of self-worth.
Baker skillfully captures the alienation of a fragile young woman, but the signs of Claire’s shift toward hope are a long time coming.