REVIEWED BY JEFF TAYLOR
S. A. Harris (Salt: 2019)
The author, S.A.Harris, is a solicitor based in Norwich and this is her debut novel. The author tells me that it is ‘partly inspired by Norfolk,and partly, Suffolk. The church and around that area in the story is Norfolk, the village and high street, Suffolk.’
Kate Keeling, an unemployed solicitor recovering from a nervous breakdown, moves out of London with Mark, her barrister husband and 9-year-old twins, Tom and Sophie, to live in Haverscroft House, a decaying property on the edge of a village called Weldon. The novel covers the first month of their occupancy of the house. Mark is mostly working away so Kate is the one who has to deal with the ‘dark secrets’ which come with the ownership of the house.
Kate’s first-person narrative drives the story from the start and I was on her side throughout. I can’t imagine any reader not being full of concern and compassion for her situation.
It is a psychological thriller, with a supernatural edge, that worked for me because of the fine balance between tense cliff-edge chapters and others which provide time for the reader to be more thoughtful. A rhythm which clearly reflects the changes in Kate’s disposition. I also like the fact that the author appears not to be trying too hard in her descriptions of people and places. No obvious pretension. Often matter-of-fact but lyrical where necessary. Another fine balance.
I do have a couple of quibbles about Haverscroft. The first is to do with sense of place, a particular interest of mine. I didn’t get a real image of the house in my mind which is a shame as it is a major character in the novel. It is certainly big, detached in its own extensive grounds. One character describes it as a ‘big old house’ though another compares it to other ‘large country piles’ which sounds bigger than just big. It has Victorian tiles but is not obviously Victorian. Could be earlier. It is described as ‘red-brick’ but the stock photo on the front and back cover is of a stone-built house. A little confused.
Also, where is the tale set? Lesley Dolphin of Radio Suffolk, while interviewing the author recently, plainly wanted it to be on the Suffolk coast even though there is no mention of any county. Weldon is within traveling distance of Colchester, Cambridge and Essex, as one of the characters comments and there are also references to the East Anglian Daily Times so it probably is set in Suffolk.
However, I like my sense of place to be either grounded or not. This seems to be somewhere in between. My other quibble is not to do with the writing but with the publishing. I was surprised by coming across a fair number of typographical errors - some quite glaring.
On the whole these quibbles don’t detract from a well written debut novel which reminded me in places of Daphne du Maurier, an author which I later discovered was one of the author’s favourite writers. So, don’t look now, but the author is working on her next novel which is going to be a ‘supernatural tale set on the Suffolk coast’. Something to look forward to.