Review by Max Dunbar
How the Other Half Lie
There is a fabulous new genre in commercial fiction. I call it ‘Posh People Getting In Trouble’. The best at this genre is the novelist Lucy Foley, whose two recent novels, The Guest List and The Hunting Party, are classics of the form. Both of these feature a group of wealthy friends that meet somewhere isolated for some grand event. The principals are professional, handsome, and very white. But they have secrets and resentments that drive the narrative, always towards murder. The format is multi-POV with lots of scary interludes in italics. These books are not great literature but they are compulsive and unpredictable. There really is something to starting a novel about your social betters and knowing they are going to be tearing chunks out of each other by chapter nine.
Characters in this genre tend to comprise a small group who have been friends since university days. They know each other inside out, or think they do. Sometimes in these books there is a Ripley character – a person who is not of the group, someone who is inside, looking in. The British class system knows how to deal with Ripley characters. If you’ve read John Niven’s novel No Good Deed you will have been struck by how easily his world manages to repel the intruder. The drawbridge swings up, the gates are barely scratched. Put it simply – if Jay Gatsby had made his start in the UK, instead of America, he’d still be sweeping floors at a local community college.
Rachel Wells is the Ripley character in Greenwich Park. She turns up to protagonist Helen’s antenatal class. Both women are heavily pregnant, but Rachel is much less careful of her condition. She is erratic and impulsive. She smokes cigarettes, drinks wine out of pint pots, and there’s a sense that the dad is very much out of the equation. Soon Helen is seeing her all over town. Then she turns up at Helen’s door with bruises on her neck. Then she moves in for a couple of nights, which turns into weeks, then months.
For Helen this is the last thing she needs. One’s heart breaks for Helen – she has lost four previous pregnancies. Her architect husband is tense and irritable and out at all hours. Her friends are distant. She has a beautiful house, left her by her distinguished parents, but even this feels like a castle made of sand. There is building work that never ends. Mysterious landline calls about second mortgages. The maelstrom of Rachel feels natural in this house where everything is always sliding under your feet. The chaos of Helen’s home culminates in a mad party that leads to a police investigation.
Not content with invading Helen’s household, Rachel blasts through her little social world. Helen’s brother, Rory, is an architect in their family practice, where Daniel also works. Rory is married to Serena and the four of them have been near inseparable since Cambridge. Their elegant world is meticulously described; there is even, heaven save us and preserve us, a punting flashback. Helen has connections with ordinary life in her journalist friend Katie, who reports on serious criminal court cases, and her brother Charlie, who works at a nightclub and is seen as the black sheep of the family. Rachel doesn’t seem to have a hinterland. It’s hard to tell what she wants. Perhaps Rachel is less like Ripley than she is like the policeman in An Inspector Calls, who knows everything about the Birling family but who may not be a policeman… or even a man. Not the intruder, but the avenging angel.
All this makes for quite the heady read. Helen dominates page time and her chapters can be hard work – Helen is curious and determined, but she is also so lost and sad the whole time, missing her adored mother, trying to make sense of her husband’s lies, and alienated from her friends. She remembers going to Serena’s hen do, at a rented house in Cornwall:
On the Saturday night, they’d all gone out, and it was raining, so I just wandered around the house. It was huge, with long hallways which were, inexplicably, covered with clocks that ticked out of sync with each other. The walls had been covered with old pictures of Serena… The pictures, someone told me, were supposed to be ’embarrassing old photographs’ which Serena would find ‘hilarious’. As far as I could see, though, she looked beautiful in all of them.
The psyche thriller, of course, is nothing without its twists and turns. The book opens with an unnamed character writing to Helen from prison. You’ll probably guess who this is, but it’s not the whole secret – there is a deeper, sinister truth that reveals itself slowly. On her first visit to Helen’s house, Rachel tells her about an old legend:
Back when these houses were built, it was all these wealthy merchants living in them… People were always travelling back and forth over the park with gold, jewels, money, cloth… But on the other side of the park, Blackheath – that’s where the robbers were. The road to Woolwich was safe – it had these big high walls – no highwaymen. But sometimes you couldn’t avoid Blackheath. And the robbers were merciless.
In Katherine Faulkner’s debut, everything is gilded, articulate and expensive, but there is always a sense of the darkness at the other end of the park.
Max blogs at maxdunbar.wordpress.com
Katherine Faulkner, Greenwich Park, (Raven Books, 2021). 978-1526626325, 464pp., hardback.
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