Vanessa Savage’s debut novel The Woman in the Dark was one of my most-anticipated releases of 2019. I have to say that this is partly down to us both being in a regional group of writers who meet up occasionally. I’ve followed Vanessa’s progression to thrillers with interest. Here’s what this first one’s about:
For Sarah and Patrick, family life has always been easy. But when Sarah’s mother dies, it sends Sarah into a downwards spiral. Knowing they need a fresh start, Patrick moves the family to the beachside house he grew up in.
But there is a catch: while their new home carries only happy memories for Patrick, to everyone else it’s known as the Murder House – named for the family that was killed there.
Patrick is adamant they can make it perfect again, though with their children plagued by nightmares and a constant sense they’re being watched, Sarah’s not so sure. Because the longer they live in their ‘dream home’, the more different her loving husband becomes . . .
The Woman in the Dark opens in the early morning light on what appears to be a normal family morning routine. The idea of moving to Patrick’s former family home hasn’t come up yet and, instead, travel plans are being floated around. It’s useful to see the family in this different, lighter and more modern home and to get a feel for the relationship dynamics here, before they make their move.
We understandably spend most time with our narrator, Sarah. It’s clear that she’s still very poorly and in a vulnerable position following the death of her mother. I think it’s important not to lose sight of this as she takes us through her family’s story. She might seem more passive than we would like her to be at times but Sarah’s not a well woman and needs to take baby steps towards recovery. Even the smallest of tasks can seem overwhelming. She also spends long periods of time alone with her thoughts, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that she’s prone to overthinking and repeatedly going over what she imagines is happening.
The warning signs are there before they move house but once they do, it’s almost as if Patrick’s former childhood home draws the fears, tensions and every poisonous thought out through their pores, bringing them to the surface. It does so at an insidious rate and this creeping sense of unease made it difficult for me to read The Woman in the Dark in the evening and especially at night before bed. I could feel my shoulders tensing and imagined myself right there with Sarah, willing her to turn on all the lights.
What begins with a handwritten letter will morph into an unsettling collection of gifts left at the house, the constant feeling of being watched, and more disturbing discoveries within its four walls. Nosy neighbours, unhelpful rumours circulating, and a seaside resort out of season all add to the inhospitable atmosphere, while inside the murder house this new family is splintering in the very place where they should feel safe.
In The Woman in the Dark Vanessa Savage has created a murder house that feels like a malevolent living presence. I could initially put the disconnect between Patrick’s childhood memories and the feel or even ‘memories’ of the house itself down to it having been the scene of a double murder in the meantime. But there’s so much more going on here and this is what makes it all the more chilling, as that realisation dawns throughout the book. I couldn’t help wondering if it was the house that was inherently evil, a place where bad things happen, or if it was all in the mind, (mine! and) Sarah’s especially.
It’s this uncertainty which makes The Woman in the Dark work so very well and the house feel so claustrophobic. Vanessa Savage builds her unnerving, chilling suspense, watches it spread through the house like toxic mould, infecting its inhabitants, until I feared there was only one way out of this murder house. Dark and controlled, this is a scarily good psychological thriller about family dysfunction.
The Woman in the Dark by Vanessa Savage is published by Sphere, a Little, Brown imprint. It is available as an audiobook, ebook and in hardback with the paperback due out this summer. You can find it at Amazon UK or buy it from Hive where purchases help support your local independent bookshop. For more on the author, check out her Facebook page or follow her on Twitter.
My thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy.
*GIVEAWAY* I have a signed hardback to give away. Leave a comment below and the squirrels will pick a winner.