‘If you were to ask me to tell you about my wife, I would have to warn you at the outset that I don’t know a great deal about her…I went into a dark room with my camera for a time, and I came out with a photograph of a woman I had never seen before.’
Meet Alex Peterson – loner, Oxford graduate, successful lawyer, and married to Rachel, a vivacious English graduate from the same college. Alex is that person ‘looking on groups from the outside….that is how [he] felt for most of [his] life…On the edge of things, apart from people, not wanting to be among them.’ One summer night, after a dinner at their old college, Rachel is found on the grounds, brutally murdered. At first, with ‘stories circulating in the room which were not [his] own’, the police suspect Alex, but he is soon cleared by a witness – Harry, Rachel’s old tutor at Oxford – and so the mystery of Rachel’s death remains a gaping hole.
What was Rachel doing out by the lake where she was killed? Why has Harry provided him with an alibi? Who is that mysterious shadowed figure seen fleeing the scene?
Alex is trapped in his grief and that winter, with an invitation from Harry, he returns to Oxford to try and find out what happened to Rachel. Harry sits Alex down and over the course of the novel he slowly reveals an interconnected chain of actions and decisions made years before, back in Alex and Rachel’s undergraduate years, that may have led to the murder at the centre of the narrative. And so we are transported back to 1990s Oxford where piece by piece, Rachel’s identity is put together. Moving back and forth to various times and places, and pierced with flashbacks, this is a layered text where, in a classic case of unreliable narrator, we can never really be sure if we can trust what Alex is telling us, or if what Harry is telling Alex is the whole truth.
I can completely understand why this book has been compared to Donna Tartt’s ‘The Secret History’ as it’s also a story of secret cliques and magnetically alluring ringleaders. It’s a highly atmospheric novel, giving you a true sense of what Oxford is. The prose is so precise, the language so luscious, and there’s something about the way the words just trip off your tongue (I had to read it our loud at times because it was so beautiful) that make this book a remarkably accomplished debut.
The ending, however, was wanting – I was waiting for a twist that never came and it ended rather speculatively. It would have been a more satisfying read if we were given something more, but perhaps this has more to do with the fact that the book was built up to be a thriller when in actual fact it’s a contemplation on grief and uncertainty. The ending doesn’t detract from the fact that the novel is immersive, is truly a pleasure to read and is one of those rare achievements that is a literary mystery.