Review: Little Face by Sophie Hannah

When Alice Fancourt comes home from her first outing since the birth of her baby Florence a week ago her world falls apart. The baby in the nursery of the house (called ‘The Elms’) she shares with her husband David, his son by his first wife and his mother Vivienne is not, she claims, her own. David is equally adamant that the baby is the same one they brought home from the hospital. When police are called, in the form of DC Simon Waterhouse initially, David is more convincing and suggests that his wife is mistaken or suffering from post natal depression. Nevertheless Simon is smitten with Alice and at least half believes her though he is unsure what he can do to progress an investigation. When his supervisor, Sergeant Charlie Zailer becomes involved she is quickly convinced of David’s point of view and calls a halt to any further investigation. Meanwhile Alice starts living a life of desperation as she is subject to psychological torture by her husband and his mother. And then the trouble starts.

I found this an annoying book to read, almost a DNF actually, and have had a bit of trouble sorting out if it’s the book’s fault or my own. In the end I suspect it’s a mixture.

We’ll start with the fact that I intensely disliked the main female character, Alice Fancourt, from the outset. She is a homeopath (on par with radio talk-back hosts and arms-traders on my personal scale of pond scum professions) and tops that off by being the kind of melodramatic woman that I always want to pour a pot of scalding hot tea over when I meet one in real life. I would, I hope, normally be highly sympathetic to a woman whose baby has been kidnapped and/or one who was being driven silently mad but in this case I couldn’t get past the fact that if she’d had a bit of common sense in the years before the events described in this book the entire sorry episode could have been avoided. But common sense and homeopaths don’t go together.

For all that, Alice is at least vaguely credible (until the end) in a way that most of the other characters are not, or at least not all in one time and place. The book failed the ‘ring of truth’ test for me by converging five of the most emotionally crippled people I’ve ever encountered all together. It’s not only all three of the Fancourts who are barking mad (though they are), but the two main coppers aren’t far off it themselves with their insecurities, sexual obsessions and adolescent behaviour. The pair carried out such a mixture of implausible, illegal and incompetent activities that I struggled to see them as anything approaching individuals who might be employed by any police force in any country in the world. When juxtaposed with the oedipal goings on at ‘The Elms’ it was all too much. I think I could have swallowed one or two such characters but an entire world populated by fruitcakes just made me laugh which kind of spoiled the tension and suspense element I’m guessing the book was aiming for.

I also found the novel’s structure tiresome with short chapters alternating between seeing things from Alice’s point of view in an almost stream-of-consciousness way and then from Simon’s via more traditional storytelling. There seemed to be an unnecessary amount of confusing repetition between the two perspectives, though to be fair this could be my fault as I tended to get carried away in my head with imagining pouring tea over Alice’s head and probably didn’t pay as much attention to some passages as I might have. But even I noticed the big plot twists being telegraphed nice and early. If I hadn’t been so busy being annoyed by Alice and the alarming number of nutters in the one town I think I might also have gotten very cross with the ending which was of the “DA DA…bet you didn’t guess that” ones that make you realise you’ve been dealing with a very unreliable narrator.

There are plenty of people who think this is a great novel and I’m prepared to admit that because the book is the perfect storm of things I hate (gothic melodrama, unreliable narrators, police who belong in high school not the workforce and homeopaths) I have a more jaundiced view of things than usual. I can’t help that but I can at least point to some more favourable reviews for you to provide some balance (see below).

My only question now is whether or not to give the second novel by Hannah (which is also sitting on my TBR shelves) a go or send it to a new home unread. I’ll mull this one over.

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Little Face has been reviewed (far more favourably) at A Good Stopping Point and Reading Matters.

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My rating 1.5/5 (actually it’s probably a 1 but I did give a few points for Hanna’s creative psychological torture, less is definitely more)
Author website http://www.sophiehannah.com/index.html
Publisher Hodder & Stoughton [2006]
ISBN 9780340840320
Length 357
Format paperback
Book Series Number #1 in the Simon Waterhouse/Charlie Zailer series
Source I mooched it

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12 Responses to Review: Little Face by Sophie Hannah

  1. Belle says:

    I don’t mind the homeopath angle, but everything else you’ve listed is on my list of things in books that annoy me. Especially the “if the protagonist had a bit of common sense this mess (and story) could have been avoided altogether” bit!

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  2. Bernadette – You’ve mentioned some things that can really make a story fall apart. Characters who don’t ring true put the reader off pretty quickly. So do characters who don’t show what most of us think is “normal” common sense. Everyone feels differently about homeopaths, and I have to admit, I don’t think that would bother me as much as it does you (although I agree with you about arms traders). But weak, badly drawn characters, a plot that’s not engaging and a choppy style – those things annoy me, too.

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  3. JoV says:

    Seriously Bernadette?!! I was so looking forward to read Sophie Hannah’s series starting with the Little Face.

    I trust you. I think I won’t bother now. 😦

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  4. kathy durkin says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more. You articulated my reactions. I could not stand this book! I had to force myself to finish it. I didn’t like any of the stories, those of the main character or the police officer. I thought these were demoralized characters, out to hurt each other. I could not have cared less about them. It made me not want to read any of Hannah’s other books. (I did read one other and did not like it either). This book sealed the deal. I realize readers have different tastes. I hate to be so hard on a book or an author, but I do not get the appeal. I do have to like at least one character and sympathize with someone or at least care what happens to a character…not true here.

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  5. kathy I’m glad to know I’m not the only one – and JoV just think how much time I’ve saved you 🙂

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  6. Dorte H says:

    I liked the story and the plot (I happen to think unreliable narrators are interesting), but I agree completely when it comes to the police & their behaviour. So 3 stars from me, but then why should we agree every time 😀

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  7. Maxine says:

    I was kinder to this book than you are, but your review very much resonates. You had better not read any more of this series (if you were even considering it 😉 ) because the dynamics and behaviour between Charlie and Simon just get more and more extreme and unbelievable as the books go on – driving me to distraction. (eg they both simply ignore direct orders from their boss and go off to do their own investigations, constantly, and nobody seems to mind). Their behaviour to each other is also increasingly bizarre and kind of anti-intimate.
    I thought Little Face is the best of the series so far, as the plot is the simplest. The plots are more silly and convoluted in future novels. For example, in one of them, it turns out that there have been two unrelated awful crimes involving kidnapping and mental/physical torture….in the same tiny english village ….and of course there is the “going into danger without mobile phone” and other cliches.
    I quite enjoyed reading Little Face though I had a sensation of “nails down the blackboard” if you know what I mean. Where I lost patience with it was at the end – both the “woman in peril” aspect (at the health club or wherever it was) and the actual solution which was more of a let-down but also a cheat.

    Oh well, this author does very well in terms of sales so she probably won’t mind a few negative reactions. I can’t be doing with books that sacrifice believability, don’t even pretend to accuracy over details (eg how the police investigate) and make everything so complicated but then kind of deny all the complications in the solution.

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  8. kathy durkin says:

    I found this book painful to read, had to grit my teeth and hate to put books in a DNF pile, and question even why I read it. Hats off to readers who liked it and others written in a similar vein. I hope the author has followers, but I am not one of them.

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  9. Thanks for those thoughts Maxine, you have convinced me to send the other Hannah book I have off to a new home without even trying it. Otherwise I’d only end up throwing it at something or someone 🙂 Happily I didn’t pay for either of them so it’s no loss to me and I’m sure someone at bookmooch or the library sale will want them as she is popular. I guess it’s one way to get my TBR down 🙂

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  10. Rebecca says:

    I was just googling for other negative reactions to this book, thinking myself crazy for not liking after so many people have recommended it. All of the things you mentioned totally resonated with me. I also saw the ending coming from a mile away, and kept thinking there must be another twist, but there wasn’t. I was mad that the person I considered the most vile character of the entire novel got no comeuppance (and I think I was supposed to even feel sympathetic towards this person by the end… yeah, no). Thanks for the review, I think I’ll take a look around for some recommendations now!

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  12. kimbofo says:

    Well, you claim my review is kinder — but I have to say this book did annoy me quite a lot and I’ve not bothered reading any more in the series. Your review gave me a few good chuckles, especially your opinion of homeopaths — which, by the way, is spot on! 😉

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