Dead child, cheating husband, stalking, mental breakdowns, misunderstood immigrants—few melodramatic prompts go unexplored in this tale of domestic woe.
Laura, the narrator of the sixth novel by Doughty (Fires in the Dark, 2004, etc.), is suffering from two emotional catastrophes. The first is the collapse of her marriage to David, who left her for one of his co-workers. The second, and most devastating, comes a few years later, when their 9-year-old daughter, Betty, is killed in a car accident in their quiet British town. Doughty structures the story by bouncing back and forth in time to cover Laura’s mental state before and after the accident. In doing so, she draws out the occasional keen observation about husbands and wives and mothers and daughters. But the novel is also saddled with bland characters and plot turns that are unengaging when they don’t defy credulity. In one thread running through the story, Laura struggles to identify the author of a series of intimidating and taunting anonymous messages, but its resolution is unsurprising and ultimately irrelevant to the story. Another subplot involves the anti-immigrant sentiment that pervades the town, focused on the Albanian man driving the car that killed Betty; in time the connection between him and Laura becomes closer, but then grows unconvincing and absurd. The novel was shortlisted for the Orange Prize and the Costa Book Award, presumably on the strength of its portrait of grief—in its more meditative moments, Laura’s feelings of shellshock are powerful, and her recollection of the day of Betty’s death is turned with agonizingly patient prose. But such moments are overwhelmed by ungainly police-procedural touches, and the novel’s shifts between the past and present sap its momentum.
An overly earnest portrait of one mother’s suffering.