Safe House by Jo Jakeman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Published: 31st October 2019 (Harvill Secker)
Steffi Finn was in love with her man. So when he told her that the police were trying to fit him up for something he hadn’t done, she lied for him. Said he was with her all night. Because that’s what you do, right? You protect the ones you care about. Most of all, you believe them. In cases like this, you have to believe them. Otherwise those questions about missing women mean there’s something a whole lot worse going on than you just making a mistake….
And boy was she ever wrong, with a prison sentence to prove it.
Now she’s out. New name. New life. A chance to start again.
Now, this is a book that plays skilfully with perspective. Not just through multiple POV, different timelines, or the addition of newspaper articles, which were all important factors in building the picture, but in the way the very idea of someone can be altered by what you think you know about them. Or what they ‘know’ about themselves. Of course, that’s a staple of psychological thrillers, but it’s well done here. For Charlie, paranoia rules. Her entire world, her system of belief and understanding of self, was invalidated by one choice: to trust her boyfriend. Nothing can be a coincidence anymore, suspicion colours her every interaction. She has to wonder whether those around her are interested, intrusive, or just plain dangerous.
Do they know about her? If so, what do they think and more importantly, what are they doing to do? And if they don’t, what happens when they find out??
When you’re just out of prison and the only opportunity you have left is on the line, every moment seems loaded with significance, with threat even. Neither Charlie nor the reader know what’s real. Is there someone out to get her, or is it all a product of her anxious mind? This new Charlie, characterised by disbelief and distrust, is powerfully contrasted by the old version of herself. Poor Steffi, desperate for love and attention, unguarded and easy to manipulate. The flashbacks to her past provide more than a few signs of abuse and control, her murderous ex and his form of coercive love clear for us to see, if not so obvious to Steffi herself.And here lies the interesting bit: if you heard on the news that a woman had alibied her guy when he was out killing women, what would you think? Perhaps that she was stupid? Or maybe that she knew? Even though we experience what Steffi did, know what she thought or saw, still it’s hard not to blame her. Come on now, how could she not see??? Right? That’s the sandbox the book plays in so well. What we know in the book vs what we ‘know’ ourselves. And the realisation that we could so easily be Steffi makes it all so deliciously uncomfortable.
After all, how well can you really know somebody…..??
On top of that, it’s surprisingly funny, with more than a dash of dark humour. Steffi/Charlie brings conflicting feelings but is engaging throughout, while the side characters all have that something that makes them vividly rendered in the mind’s eye. The slow-build pacing means that the final reveal crashes in like a tidal wave, demolishing all the hints and possibilities, then receding to leave the truth battered and bruised on the sand. It works well enough but isn’t entirely satisfying. Probably more thanks to the change in pacing than any failure to round out the story. In fact, the biggest issue I had with the book overall is that I loved the opening scene with DC Naz Apkarian and DC Angus Harper so much that I was disappointed that it wasn’t their show. They had immediate appeal, the classic cop duo with attitude all day long. Let Charlie have her new life, I’d rather see what Naz and Angus have to offer.
Safe House is a twisty, suspenseful thriller that has you questioning everything. Even yourself.
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