In My House by Alex Hourston

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Reviewed by Linda Boa

Margaret Benson is 57 years old. She lives alone, bar her dog Buster, in her own house in a comfortable, middle class area of London. She works from home, typing medical records. She guards her privacy carefully, and has few friends – just a few fellow dog walkers she meets by arrangement daily. She even holidays alone, and it is on her return from one of her walking holidays, this time in Morocco, that drama rears its unwelcome head into her carefully curated life.

While at the airport, after getting off her plane home, she notices a young woman, to whom a slightly older one is sticking closely. While washing her hands and face, the young lady mouths the word “help” at Maggie. While her “chaperone” uses the bathroom, Maggie quickly taps on the young girl’s door, and ushers her out. In front of her is the main trafficker; a big man. Maggie screams, shouts, and does all it takes to attract attention from the authorities.

After a few days, one of the policewomen involved in the incident contacts Maggie and asks her if she would mind meeting the victim, who has asked to thank her in person. They get together in a “neutral environment”, as suggested by the police, and Anja, who’s only 19, is absurdly grateful to Maggie. On an impulse, Maggie asks if Anja would like to help her out with some cleaning work in her home, cash in hand, knowing she will have little or no money. And so a friendship develops, above and beyond the job. Anja often stays late to chat over a cup of tea or something to eat, and enjoys curling up on Maggie’s sofa watching (dire-sounding!) television.

Anja also manages to become friends with the dog walkers (Paul and Maureen, but there’s also Paul’s partner Peter, who works from home as an architect while the others walk the dogs). Mags is soon surprised to hear Anja is also cleaning for Peter and Paul. She seems perfectly happy with this older group, even though all of them are more than twice her age. She sorts out their computing problems, completely changing Maggie’s laptop to a more convenient set-up (with the BBC as her home page).

Meanwhile, since the drama at the airport, Maggie has been receiving silent phone calls. Has someone from the past tracked her down? Just what is it that she is so determined should remain hidden?

Soon, Anja and Margaret’s relationship has developed into something between friends, and mother-and-daughter. However, Maggie already has a daughter, Rose, across the city, from whom she is estranged. She’s also grandmother to a little boy. Meanwhile, the odd night Anja ends up staying over in the spare room, and Maggie runs her baths when she is tired. When she finds her, early, waiting in the rain one day, she gives her a spare key to her home, so now Anja can come and go from Maggie’s as she pleases.

Sections of the book begin to delve more and more into Maggie’s past, from her childhood in Brighton, to a marriage to a man “going places”, to her daughter. To a rift with her mother, never repaired. And to one – or two – stupid mistakes, after an afternoon martini, the shocking results of which lead to Maggie’s withdrawal into her own private world.

However, Anja is talking about moving on, away from London, as it seems unlikely she’ll be allowed to stay in Britain legally. And after a fall-out (the famous Benson temper, declares Maggie) causes them to not see each other for several days, Mags is lost. She’s no longer happy in her own company; she’s tasted friendship, cast off her loneliness and doesn’t want her life to return to the way it was. From her saving Anja, has the balance shifted? Is Anja now her saviour from a lonely life? But it seems that Anja has been doing a lot more than cleaning in her time alone at Maggie’s…

Hourston is exceptional at observing people, until you feel you almost know them personally. She’s also excellent at describing two very different, but excruciating, social gatherings. Her ear for dialogue impressed often, too.

This is a book about how we all need friends and family, and how people who only pass through your lives can make you realise that more than any life experience you possess. It’s also about how you don’t have to be like the rest of your family, and that it’s never too late to at least try and mend fences. And that the truth has a way of getting free, no matter how well you think you’ve got it tightly bound. Although this isn’t a book I’d instantly be drawn towards, bar for the beautifully designed cover, the characters pulled me right in, and it proved exceptionally hard to put down. An author worth watching; I’d recommend this one.

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Linda Boa blogs at crimeworm.

Alex Hourston, In My House (Faber: London, 2015). 978-0571316670, 320pp., paperback.

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