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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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 
Book Series Number #1 in the Simon Waterhouse/Charlie Zailer series
Source I mooched it