I know from personal experience how intense a week’s writing retreat can be; they forge lasting friendships and can be as life-changing for the individual as they are for their writing. But I’m incredibly relieved they’ve never proved to be as devastating as the one which sparks off the central female relationship in Sarah Stovell’s Exquisite.
Bo Luxton has it all – a loving family, a beautiful home in the Lake District, and a clutch of bestselling books to her name.
Enter Alice Dark, an aspiring writer who is drifting through life, with a series of dead-end jobs and a freeloading boyfriend.
When they meet at a writers’ retreat, the chemistry is instant, and a sinister relationship develops…
Or does it?
Exquisite’s main characters Bo and Alice are writers, albeit at different stages of their careers. And when you have people who make things up for a living telling the story, they might not be the most reliable of narrators. They’re both persuasive storytellers, possibly prone to exaggeration and bending the truth or shaping things to fit their own narrative. To further muddy the waters, there’s an unnamed narrator to try and identify before Sarah Stovell’s ready to reveal them, who could help shine a light on what’s going on here. All of which helps to make this a deliciously dark, fast-paced psychological thriller that not only messes with the minds of its characters, but also that of the reader. It makes you question who you believe, what you’ve read and witnessed, and causes you to doubt your own understanding of events.
Exquisite is a book of contrasts, some of which are real and others illusory. It contains love and beauty, nurture and openness, kindness and generosity alongside calculated behaviour, cruelty and manipulation, lies and deceit. An already damaged person perpetuates more damage on themselves and others to devastating effect, exploiting their vulnerability and openness, and affecting the lives of innocents.
That’s not to say that Exquisite has no flaws. There’s a convenient best friend in the police force ready to advise, a windfall that facilitates the mobility of one of the characters, as well as a rather naive compliance with a request which most people would find odd and without which the other person’s machinations would not be possible or initially as successful. All that said, this is a very good, satisfyingly chilling take on what happens when a writer decides to take playing God off the page and tries it out in real life with high stakes: careers, family, relationships, reputation and sanity are all in play against a cold, cold heart.
I read Exquisite in one heady go, whipping through page after page, as it gathered speed and shuttled me from Yorkshire to the Lake District to Brighton to Northumberland, and then back again. Like literary bagatelle or pinball, Exquisite is a bruising mind game for characters and reader alike. Sarah Stovell makes sure to draw you in and plays you, sending you rocketing up and down the country and through every emotion. And she does it exceptionally well.
Exquisite by Sarah Stovell is published by Orenda Books and is available as an ebook and in paperback. You can find it at Amazon UK, Foyles, Hive (supporting your local independent bookshop), Waterstones and Wordery. You can follow the author on Twitter.
My thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy for review. I’m taking part in the blog tour which started on 1 June and runs until 8 July. You can find all of the participating blogs below.