A middle-aged woman imprisons a teenage boy in Hancock’s spooky debut.
When daughter Kit departs for University, Sonia expects empty nest syndrome, but not intrusive memories of her adolescent encounters with a charismatic, seemingly homeless boy named Seb. Sonia is being nagged by her absentee neurologist husband, Greg, and her aging mother, to sell her beloved childhood and current residence, River House, overlooking a seedy stretch of the Thames in London. In short, conditions are ripe for a meltdown, and when golden boy Jez, her best friend Helen’s 15-year-old nephew, comes over to borrow a vintage vinyl album, Sonia gets him drunk on the wine she was saving for her daughter’s 21st birthday (the novel is rich in such choice details) and, almost on a whim, locks him in the River House music room. The point of view alternates between Sonia’s first-person voice and Helen’s third-person narration, as Jez’s disappearance is chronicled day by day. Unlike a more seasoned sociopath, who might target a victim no one will miss, Sonia has selected the son of Helen’s sister, Maria, a helicopter mother. Arriving from Paris, Maria blames Helen for not keeping any closer tabs on houseguest Jez (in London to interview for admission to music schools) than she does on her own teenage sons. Helen is frantic to keep the police from learning that, on the day Jez disappeared, she was in a pub nursing a hangover rather than at work, and she’s also increasingly distressed at the enthusiasm with which husband Mick is consoling his anguished sister-in-law. Hancock gradually unveils the sinister parallels between Sonia’s tortured infatuation with Seb and her obsession with Jez and creates enough sympathy for both Helen and Sonia that, despite the fact that one is a criminal and the other is criminally negligent, we root for both.
Unfortunately the secret at the novel’s core is one the first-person narrator could have revealed all along, but doesn’t, making the ending seem contrived.