By Renée Knight
Documentary filmmaker Catherine Ravenscroft finds a book titled The Perfect Stranger on her bedside table and though she can’t remember how she acquired it she starts reading it. All too soon she realises that she is the subject of the book, renamed as ‘Charlotte’. The novel is a fictionalised account of events that happened 20 years ago after her husband Robert had to come home early from a family holiday, leaving Catherine alone in Spain with their 5 year old son Nicholas. What happened in those few days in Spain is a secret Catherine has told no one in the last twenty years, but now the book proves just the start of a campaign by retired teacher Stephen Brigstocke who is determined that Catherine should pay for what happened back then. As her life begins to fall apart can Catherine save herself from the deadly fate that befalls her literary counterpart Charlotte, or will Stephen get the revenge he feels he is owed?
I picked this up because it had an interesting premise. What would happen if you began reading a book and quickly realised that it was about you, and in particular about a dark secret from your past? I wasn’t seduced by the “It’s the new Gone Girl!” label on the cover (mainly because I’ve never read GG, only seen the film) but that should have given me some warning. As a rule of thumb books that tell you how brilliant they are on the front cover rarely are, especially when they compare themselves to something else.
My first problem with the book is that it took me a little while to get into it. The narrative shifts between Catherine and Stephen’s perspective, only Catherine is in the 3rd person and Stephen is in the first person. I’m not sure why this was done, except to provide a contrast between the two points of view, and perhaps because whilst Stephen thinks he knows what happened in Spain, only Catherine would know for sure.
The book also shifts in time, between 2013 and 1993, and it took a little while to acclimatise myself to the shifting perspectives and times. I persevered and the book did become more engaging, and Knight’s prose and structure did hook me somewhat, against my better judgement. I wouldn’t quite call it a page turner, but it did prove a quick read because I wanted to find out what was going on.
The trouble is that what’s going on is pretty flimsy and hangs on a multitude of contrivances, and like a bad sitcom plot everything could be resolved pretty quickly if characters just sat down and talked to one another. I can understand Catherine’s reluctance on one level to dig up a traumatic event, but when a man seems hell bent on ruining your life and possibly even killing you and your son, surely it’s time to bite the bullet. Other characters just believe second hand testimony as if it was gospel, which is especially vexing when late on a certain character seems to have held doubts all along.
I’m sure the author would claim that it’s all about guilt and secrets, and how you get to a point where you can’t reveal what really happened because of the hurt you’ll cause, but in the end it feels like a house of cards, and every narrative trick the author uses seems really obvious in hindsight.
It doesn’t help that not one character is remotely empathetic. Sure towards the end you begin to feel for both Catherine and Stephen, but up to this point neither is that likable, nor is Catherine’s husband or their layabout son. None of them ever felt ‘real’, even Catherine’s job as a filmmaker seems flimsy, like the author just googled the job and then barely took any notes. This is bizarre given Knight herself was a documentary filmmaker for many years.
It’s not terrible, and it isn’t like Knight is a bad writer, I just wish her characters had been warmer and her plot a little meatier. As it is this is an ok book that you can’t help feeling was sold on the basis of an intriguing elevator pitch, but which never quite lives up to its billing.