Grace Jensen’s past catches up with her in The Beach House, threatening to dismantle the new life she’s carefully constructed for herself in the Pacific Northwest and bring it crashing down.
When Grace Jensen returns to her home one day, she finds a body in a pool of blood and a menacing gift left for her. The community of Lookout Beach is shocked by such a brutal intrusion in their close-knit neighbourhood – particularly to a family as successful and well-liked as the Jensens – and a police investigation to find the trespasser begins.
But Grace knows who’s after her. She might have changed her name and moved across the world, deciding to hide on the Oregon coast, but she’s been waiting seventeen years for what happened in the small Welsh town where she grew up to catch-up with her. Grace might seem like the model neighbour and mother, but nobody in Lookout Beach – not even her devoted husband Elias – knows the real her. Or how much blood is on her hands.
I have to admit that I didn’t immediately click with the protagonist of The Beach House. When architect Grace Jensen returns home to find the door unlocked and a sinister array of gifts on her kitchen countertop, her reaction isn’t what I’d expect or what mine would have been. Instead, she’s cool, calm and collected, more interested in how untidy it makes the place seem. Her demeanour doesn’t even alter greatly after she discovers a body(!)
Something feels off from the outset, both with Grace and what is actually happening to her and I think Beverley Jones sets it up well, this slightly off-kilter feeling which continues throughout the book.
The break-in and attack send shockwaves through the exclusive beach town community where Grace, her architect husband Elias and eight-year-old daughter Tilly live when they’re not up in the city (Portland). While the police investigation gets underway and Grace and her family attempt to carry on with their normal lives, we begin to discover what’s prompting Grace’s unusual behaviour.
Nothing I do today will betray the intrinsic difference between the inside and outside of me, here on the Pacific Northwest shore, the far-flung edge of the New World, where America gives up, folds down on itself and falls into the sea.
Beverley Jones reels us away from the Oregon coastline, taking us right across the United States and over the Atlantic Ocean to a small village near Bridgend on the South Wales coast. It’s where Grace grew up and, apart from loving having part of the book set in an area I’m familiar with, it was interesting to see how different her life was there. I began to appreciate why I’d been slow to gel with her and enjoyed getting to know where she came from, or the real her.
Grace is forced to confront events from her past, what she effectively put all this distance between, and the difficult and tragic story unfolds in what feels like flickering snatches of childhood memories, as if we’re watching an old cine film or video. Myths and legends from the local area wrap themselves around these, much as sea fog curls around the coastal stacks in Oregon, and I relished hearing these and identified so much more with this younger self. (Before it all goes horribly wrong, I hasten to add.)
I remember only too well how it was, the looks, the whispers, except in my case everyone was looking at me as if they hoped I would break.
As Grace’s own design project takes shape, adding features and more detail, so too does the story behind what forced her so far from home and into this new and more polished life. It becomes clear that adult Grace is a necessary construct, partly made of grown-up self, as well as a determination to bury her past and leave it far behind in the sand dunes she had played in and the estuary she had surfed when younger. Beverley Jones handles Grace’s split selves and lives exceptionally well here, achieving a good balance between present day Oregon and what happened back in South Wales. She feeds us just enough to keep us guessing while also ramping up the tension.
Just as Grace feels that countdown start when she walks into her kitchen as the book opens, I could hear that ticking metronome of doom become more insistent throughout the book. Would the facade fall and her dream life shatter and collapse? Visions of her Project (the new beach house) crumbling all about her and collapsing into the sea or this incredibly composed kayaker getting caught in a riptide when her past and present lives collided. Would she capsize or execute an eskimo roll and somehow save herself?
From the chocolate box village Grace grew up in to the hipster coastal town where she escapes, feelings of childhood nostalgia and aspirational lifestyles conspire to create an illusory world where neither people nor places are what they appear. Beverley Jones uses this to excellent effect, while she reveals the messy lives beneath the surface and the swirling mass of lies, longing and misunderstandings which ultimately result in tragedy, much as a school darkroom once exposed a photographic art project and captured something altogether more horrific and disturbing.
The Beach House is built on sound foundations but Beverley Jones never lets us forget the proximity of the sea or the threat it poses. It mirrors the danger Grace perceives as closing in on her and, I have to admit, my own sympathies shifted like the changing tides throughout the book. It’s about a woman who’s run to the edge of the world but whose past has now caught up with her; a woman whose own story is so caught up in local legend that they appear inextricably linked. The Beach House is a tense, slow burn suspense and a wholly captivating read to discover whether Grace survives. Will she sink or swim? (Now’s a great time to find out – the ebook’s currently only 99p on Amazon.)
Any architect will tell you that the surface of something cannot guarantee the state of its heart. Rot, black mould, leaks can live beneath the facade of buildings, fractures swell in the ribs of walls that smile with climbing wisteria. Just as jealousy, longing, shame and confusion lurk under the skin.
The Beach House by Beverley Jones is published by Constable, part of the Little, Brown book group. It is available as an ebook and in paperback. You can find it at Amazon UK (affiliate link), Bookshop.org (affiliate link), Hive and Waterstones. For more on the author, check out her Crime Cymru profile or follow her on Instagram or on Twitter.
My thanks to Karen aka BookerTalk for inviting me to take part in the blog tour which runs all week.