I reviewed Lucy Atkin’s first novel ‘The Missing One’ on my webpage because I was thrilled to find a first novel so full of real three dimensional characters, the psychological and emotional intelligence to flesh out difficult family relationships and most particularly women with rich professional and inner lives. It was a great debut so I was looking forward to her second novel and managed to read it in one day with hardly any breaks.
Our protagonist, Tess, has had a whirlwind year; she meets a brilliant cardiac surgeon ad their relationship moves very fast from dating to contemplating a life together. At the start of the novel she is just married, heavily pregnant and organising a move from London to Boston. Greg has lived in the UK for 15 years, but has been offered his dream job heading up the cardiac team in a prestigious Boston hospital. He asks Tess to go with him and she makes the big decision to start afresh in Boston with Greg, her son, and their new baby who is due to arrive soon after the move. They have a whirlwind wedding then Greg immediately moves to the US, leaving Tess to pack up her home and follow on. I was immediately struck with the sheer amount of change: the chaos of a big house move is doubled because it is overseas; new access arrangements need to be made for her first child Joe with his father; starting a new life with none of your usual support system on the same continent. The feeling of stress is palpable and I kept thinking that if this was my friend I might be advising her to slow down. Added to the stress is their unplanned pregnancy when Greg had made it quite clear he didn’t want to be a father. However, he is kind to Joe and Tess believes he will come round as the pregnancy progresses.
Tess imagines a lovely clapboard house with a garden and plenty of space for the children to play. She wants to set up a photography studio and restart her own business once she is settled. She has never seen the house Greg has organised for them to live in and it is with great disappointment that, after a long flight with a fractious small child, she arrives in an American suburb with the keys to a large ‘mock Tudor’ style home that she would never have chosen. It is the first indication that life is not going to turn out as she expected, especially when she hears the neighbours arguing on their first night, followed by strange noises that seem to be coming from inside the house. Tess also had an eerie feeling that she was being watched. Their neighbour, Helena, is coldly beautiful and also a talented surgeon. She has started a running routine at 5am every morning with Greg. Helena’s husband refers to them keeping ‘surgeon’s hours’ and it seems it has never occurred to Tess that Greg’s new position will take its toll on their daily life. She begins to suspect that Helena and Greg get along a little too well; a feeling heightened by the fact that she is nervous about fitting in and making friends in this affluent suburb where the women seem so polished. Added to this Greg seems unreachable, partly from trying to impress in a brand new job but also because he has quickly absorbed back into his previous lifestyle. She had expected to learn more about Greg’s friends and family. Although both his parents are dead, she had expected to learn more about them and Greg’s childhood before their baby is born. They feel far from becoming a family unit and as she is alone unpacking their boxes and she starts to feel even more uneasy. She puts it down to the pregnancy and her heightened emotions or stress from moving, but despite rationalising the feeling of foreboding it doesn’t go away. Why does Greg hate talking about his past? Why does he have no friends or extended family? Also, who is the strange woman in the red coat lurking around outside? Is she the homeless woman with mental health problems as Greg explains, or is there a something more to her?
Atkins never allows the reader to draw breath in this novel which is impossible to put aside for longer than ten minutes. She walks a finely balanced line by creating just enough doubt in Greg; then creates a seemingly rational and reasonable explanation. Similarly, one minute Tess seems irrational and her concerns could be explained by her new circumstances, stress and pregnancy –almost like a perfect storm for emotional imbalance. Yet, Greg is strangely elusive and refuses to talk about his traumatic family life. How much does she really know about the man she has married? Atkins is at her best when exploring psychological trauma and how the problems of one generation always affect the next. The complexity of family life is beautifully explored when her previous partner comes into the story to spend time with his son; his understanding of her emotions and protectiveness towards what was once his family is nicely drawn. He adds another layer of difficulty as Tess she finds herself making excuses for Greg’s absence or behaviour. Tess’s feeling of closeness to Greg is shown to be purely emotional with very little grounding in everyday life – she had not known what it would be like to be married to such an eminent surgeon whereas her neighbour’s husband knows about the long hours, the networking and early morning workouts. Atkins hits a very accurate note when describing Tess’s need to protect Greg from friends and family’s questions about his behaviour, while inside she is asking the same questions and having the same doubts. She wonders whether she has made a mistake, but would not dream of letting anyone else know what she is thinking. I did find her a little difficult to understand and frustrating because the whirlwind relationship, proposal and move did seem very reckless and if she had been my friend I would have encouraged her not to go. I find her worryingly naïve at times and wondered why she waited so long to get answers. Atkins is also very successful at creating tension, such as in a very creepy scene where Tess thinks someone is in the house and locks herself into the basement. I would recommend this book as a great holiday read, a page turner that’s not too taxing but nevertheless tense, emotionally intelligent and in places very sinister. You will keep guessing at the truth and then reading on to see if you’re right – I was only halfway right, but it was fun getting there.
The Other Child by Lucy Atkins
Published by Quercus