When a woman discovers strangers moving into her London home, her estranged husband and sons nowhere to be seen, it’s only the beginning of the nightmare that will upend her life.
Fiona “Fi” Lawson loves her house in the fictional posh Alder Rise neighborhood almost as much as she loves her picture-perfect family: husband Bram and adorably rambunctious sons Harry and Leo. Candlish (The Swimming Pool, 2016, etc.) digs deep for both suspense and compassion but comes up empty with Fi, whose almost stubborn cluelessness about the state of her marriage (Bram is a serial adulterer, among other things) and, later, her insistence on being a victim (so much so that she goes on a podcast called The Victim) make her a sour protagonist at best. When Fi catches Bram having sex with someone else in the children’s garden playhouse, she throws him out but decides to try a custody arrangement known as a bird’s nest, where the children stay in the family home and the parents alternate living there and at a newly acquired flat. While the setup seems great on paper, it doesn’t take into account the depths of Bram’s lies—the yearlong driving ban he’s hidden from Fi soon becomes the least of his concerns—and the lengths he’ll go to save himself. With the narrative confusingly split into sections from Fi’s podcast segment, a Word document that’s allegedly Bram’s suicide note, and perspectives from both spouses, it’s difficult for readers to keep a firm grip on the timeline and to truly care as Bram enters into an unnecessarily complicated blackmail scheme and Fi remains annoyingly oblivious on all fronts even when Bram disappears, having sold the Alder Rise home without her knowledge.
In a novel concerned with connection and trust, Candlish fails to connect with readers on either level, serving up characters so wrapped in their own problems that “family” is merely a word to them.