I have always liked Natalie Haynes, when I have seen her on the telly being very funny or talking on the BBC’s Review Show (which should be on more regularly and back on the mainstream Beeb) I have always found her thoughts really insightful. Ok, maybe we fell out a bit over The Luminaries when she was judging the Man Booker last year, but I couldn’t have agreed more with what an amazing book The Song of Achilles was when it won the Orange Prize and she was a judge. I then got slightly jealous about how many book prizes she was judging but we moved on, it was fine. Note – she knew none of this until we met for an interview on You Wrote the Book just to clarify, this isn’t a review of a friend’s book; though she would be a great friend to have a cocktail or two and meal with and discussing putting the cultural world to rights. Anyway, I have really digressed, Natalie has her debut novel out and it might not be what you are expecting…
Alex Morris is trying to escape her life. The only way she feels she can do this, without turning to suicide which isn’t in her nature, she feels is to get as far away from her old life in London and escape to Edinburgh where hardly anyone knows her and there won’t be the constant reminders of the loss of her fiancé under dreadful, and initially mysterious, circumstances. Through her friend Robert Alex has landed a job teaching at The Unit, an initiative set up for ‘difficult kids’ expelled by any other school. Here she will teach Classics, yet what Alex doesn’t realise is that as she teaches these Greek tragedies a tragedy may be playing out right in front of her eyes.
It is very, very difficult to say too much more about the plot without giving anything away. With this being a psychological thriller (who else would, as I did, have assumed initially that this was going to be a comedy?) there are lots of plots and twists that get revealed along the way I wouldn’t want to give away. Yet what I found so brilliant about The Amber Fury is that Haynes manages to give very little away both in the past and in the present narratives until she really wants two, doubly clever when the book is also in two narratives.
The first thing they will ask me is how I met her. They already know how we met, of course. But that won’t be why they’re asking. It never is.
From the very first line of the novel Haynes has you in her web, yet you are also rather confused (without ever being so baffled you throw the book across the room in despair) as you realise that something awful has happened very recently in Alex’s past, after the awful way in which she lost her fiancé before fleeing to Edinburgh in the hope of escape, fat chance there Ms Morris. Slowly Alex tells us both her tales, meaning sometimes you are trying to work out which awful thing she is discussing, whilst also we have a diary of one of her pupils. I won’t say which one it is obviously, safe to say though that they become rather obsessed with Alex and the new knowledge she is bringing into their lives. On top of this Haynes also throws several twists, turns and a few red herrings which are frustratingly brilliant and never make you quite cross enough to throw the book across the room either.
Brilliant stuff, and all that would be quite enough to make a great thriller yet Haynes has also weaved in themes which give the book weight and added depths, some as dark as the mysteries at the heart of the book. She brings up the subject of obsession and what it could take to make someone become obsessed, or not take actually thinking about it, and where obsession can lead. It also looks at education, and how ‘difficult kids’ are perceived as well as why the classics are important and not a dead subject as many believe. It is also about grief.
In fact I would say grief and hurt are probably the two themes that underline The Amber Fury. The grief and pain of losing someone you love so much and build your world around in the case of Alex, but also the grief and hurt that can be caused by people telling you that you’re no good, that you are a waste in society and have no future. How do we react to those things as humans be it good or bad? Haynes looks at these two themes unflinchingly and with a raw realism which I found incredibly moving and disturbing to read. These rather raw and moving moments propel The Amber Fury and give it additional layers which create a real impact. As with The Night Guest which I mentioned earlier this week, we have a dark, atmospheric and twisty tale that thrills but also has real depths to it, these are the sort of marvellously written and thrilling novels I want many more of in the months and years to come.
If you would like to hear more about the book (which I am sure you would) you can hear Natalie in conversation with me on the latest episode of You Wrote the Book here. Have any of you read any thrillers that had multiple layers (I have another review of another one coming soon actually) behind it and made it all the more brilliant for it? Do you think this is why thrillers and crime novels are becoming more and more popular, showing people from all walks of life and their hidden depths whilst also being a compelling book to read? Let me know, and of course let me know your thoughts once you have read the book too!