They say that there is nothing new to write about under the sun, and they are probably right. So when I hear of any novel where people are claiming that it is ‘a truly original story’ or ‘quite unlike any other book of its genre’ I tend to look on sceptically. In the case of ‘Tideline’ by Penny Hancock I think those are actually two quotes that I would give the book myself. If you love a good thriller, as you probably know I do, and want something that stands out from the crowd in what is the biggest market in books then this is definitely a book you should be giving a whirl.
As clichéd as it may sound I was hooked from the very first page of ‘Tideline’ and found it very difficult to put down. In fact I am struggling to think of a thriller or crime novel that has thrown me into its story in such a gripping, and also rather disturbing way so instantly in quite some time. As this psychological thriller starts we are instantly drawn into the story as Sonia, a music teacher living in Greenwich, opens the door to a fifteen year old boy called Jez who she decides she won’t allow to leave… ever.
The speed with which Penny Hancock took me into the story and indeed Sonia’s thoughts was so swift and sudden that I found I had to stop reading and take stock of the situation before I could pick the book up again. This is not one of those books where the author builds up the suspense slowly and leads you on for 100 pages until something actually happens, this is a book that grabs you and simply won’t let you go and I was left pondering if Penny Hancock would keep the momentum at the pace the whole way through, indeed she does.
The speed in which Sonia makes the decision to hold Jez hostage makes us realise that this is no planned event, it also tells us that we have in Sonia a protagonist who is on the edge and has been for quite some time. This is in part what drives the story forward, Sonia’s past. Seeing Jez at her door brings backs thoughts and events either long forgotten or deeply buried (which we then get in flashbacks) and yet in a way these have been there subconsciously and may be why she is so obsessed about the house she lives in, one her father left her after he committed suicide.
Sonia’s obsession with The River House is really the only small insight that anyone, including her husband (who is often away on business, and believes is happily married) and daughter (who has recently moved out), could have that in front of there is someone who has been unhinged and rather unstable for quite some time and has been a silent ticking time bomb waiting to go bonkers. Jez’s arrival, to borrow a rare CD of her husbands, is the switch that even Sonia isn’t aware she has been waiting for. This in many ways makes it, and Sonia, all the more frightening.
The story could actually get too claustrophobic if we were in Sonia’s head all the time, there was a point, where after having got Jez so drunk he is practically unconscious that she puts him to bed and starts to stroke him, that I thought ‘I don’t think I can do this for a whole book’. I was feeling sufficiently creeped out and bordering on too uncomfortable to read on, Hancock was achieving her goal but I think she knew just Sonia would be too much, so in comes the narrative of Helen. Helen is Jez’s aunt and also an old friend of Sonia’s, though they haven’t seen each other much. After having had an affair her marriage is in tatters and she’s turned to drink, she has also become the number one suspect in her own nephew’s disappearance.
Through Helen and Sonia we also see behind the closed doors of the exclusive/middle class suburbs of London and in particular to two marriages that in differing ways aren’t working. Hancock also uses these two women to make the point that we never really know what is going on behind closed doors and what skeletons people might have in their closets. It also shows you how complex the book is at its heart, which is another thing I loved about it; I couldn’t second guess it – though of course I tried only to be proved wrong at every one of my assumptions and possible outcomes. Rather like S. J. Watson’s ‘Before I Go To Sleep’ Penny Hancock also makes the familiar suburban life seem a lot less comfortable and much darker around the edges.
Basically I thought this book was great, but I should mention a slight wobble I had with it. It was only one small thing but it was something I noticed. The speed with which the book starts and the momentum that Hancock keeps going to make you turn the page and read ‘just one more chapter’, I think, should have wound down at the end. Everything unfolds and reaches its peak all too quickly and actually a tiny bit more suspense at the end would have not only worked in dragging the ending out, in that torturous ‘oh goodness how on earth will all this end’ way, but it would have been less confusing. I had to read the penultimate chapter a few times to work out what had happened in the present and in the past because it all seemed to happen too quickly, but the epilogue was brilliant and it is a small criticism.
‘Tideline’ is the sort of thriller that I want to put in the path of anyone who doesn’t deem thrillers as literature. It’s got two incredibly interesting and gripping characters at the heart of it, multiple layers with all its back stories, looks at human behaviour (if in extremes) and its simply a cracking tale. Did I mention it’s a debut novel too? I feel it should be mentioned because it’s an incredibly accomplished one. If you love a good gripping tale with thrills and spills and one of the most morbidly fascinating (scary and disturbing) protagonists then ‘Tideline’ is a book you need to pick up pronto. Much recommended.