Getting Colder by Amanda Coe

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Review by Judith Wilson

I had read and been intrigued by Amanda Coe’s strong debut novel, What They Do in the Dark (Virago, 2011), so I couldn’t wait to lay my hands on Getting Colder. The jacket blurb bristled with the fictional ingredients I adore: a crumbling house in Cornwall, a brother and sister with secrets to uncover and an intriguing title, hinting – chillingly, I wondered? – at the childish game we’ve all known and played. And the book didn’t disappoint. At a slim 272 pages, it’s a swift novel, but for those who love fiction interwoven with family secrets, quiet deception, and fractured relationships (as I do) it is spot-on and a sensitive, and at times very amusing, read.

We first meet the adult Nigel and his younger sister, Louise, as they descend on Cornwall for their estranged mother’s funeral. We also encounter Patrick, their grouchy alcohol-loving step-father, who is a fading playwright, and Holly, Louise’s wayward teenage daughter. Sara – Nigel and Louise’s mum – has died of cancer without warning, but neither sibling arrives grief-stricken, because Sara had abandoned them long ago, after she ran off with Patrick when they were kids. There has been limited contact, for both Nigel and Louise, ever since.

Right from the off, Sara and Patrick’s unkempt house becomes the focus: it attracts lawyer Nigel’s beady eye (will he and Louise inherit it?) and becomes Louise’s ‘escape’ from her miserable Leeds home, whilst feeding her need to reconnect spiritually with her mum. Into the mix comes the beautiful, well-groomed student Mia, who has pitched up to ‘interview’ Patrick for her MA thesis, and who rapidly makes the Cornish house her new base, too. Sara had made the initial invitation – but it is Patrick who takes a shine to Mia – and who wants her to stay. Despite Nigel and Louise’s misgivings, Mia offers herself ‘for free’ in place of a housekeeper. With her love of interiors magazines, and an eye clearly on the potential of the house (and Patrick), she fast becomes a cuckoo for Nigel and Louise to deal with. At this point, the Now section of Part 1 is neatly rounded off, and as a reader, I was hooked, immediately wanting more.

To add further plot details would spoil the suspense, and suspense there is, though it is a subtle suspense, rather than thrillingly teasing. This book has a careful, quite complex structure: Amanda Coe is a master of inter-weaving the past and present. I loved the way Getting Colder is divided into three parts: each one contains a Now section, spanning Spring to Autumn and Spring again, and a Then section, touching on 1979, 1983, and finally 1997. Amongst the narrative, there are snippets of Patrick’s correspondence to Sara, as he starts to woo her away from her husband and children, and an excerpt from his 1982 play Bloody Empire (which brings him fame and fortune). So we are filled in gradually on the events from the past. I liked the way the book also gives Nigel’s and Louise’s viewpoints after their mother leaves: Nigel is set on one, very privileged trajectory, whilst Louise takes a different direction. As Getting Colder progresses there is a creeping sense that more family secrets will be revealed, and gently, slowly, they are.

Already skilled as a screenwriter, as a novelist Amanda Coe is also brilliant at characterisation: with a few deft strokes, we’re up to speed on the key characters, and there’s humour here, too. I particularly enjoyed Nigel, with his IBS and his pollen allergies, unhappily married and impatient with his hapless sister, but as the book progressed, Louise, with her life lived in the detail and her desperation to find out how her mother’s later life panned out, also became an endearing character. Mia, with her designs (literally) on the house and her calculating plans for the future, is a triumph – I loved her! Amanda Coe doesn’t waste words, and this is not a book crafted with masses of vivid description. Instead, the focus is firmly on the structure, and the weakness, of family relationships, most particularly on the damage that a mother leaving her children can wreak – for years to come. If I had a quibble, it would be that the setting of the novel – Cornwall – doesn’t really get a look-in: the house might have been set anywhere in the UK.

Whereas What They Do in the Dark has a chilling finale, the conclusion of Getting Colder is quieter and more thoughtful, but it is satisfying and creates a perfect full stop. If you love fiction that delves back and forth, from present to the past, and with secrets at its core, you will enjoy Getting Colder.

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Amanda Coe, Getting Colder (Virago: London, 2014). 978-0-349-00509-6, 272pp, hardback.

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