Perfect Little Children by Sophie Hannah

Along with authors that I read who recommend books, I also take on board the opinions of my friends on books that they have read as well as those of other bloggers. But I also listen to my mother.

Also, a prolific reader, my mum’s taste may not be as eclectic as mine and she has been known to read bags and bags of Mills and Boon, but she does like a good thriller and when she was eager to continue reading Perfect Little Children (or Haven’t They Grown? as it was entitled in the UK) in the conservatory after one of our daily Skype conversations, I thought that this may be one that I needed to check out. Also, Sophie Hannah had been quoted as liking another book I had recently read called Blood Libel, which was a good read so chances are I would probably enjoy her fictional effort.

And I did. The book begins with Beth Leeson parking outside the house of an old friend when her son has a soccer match in the same area. She has lost contact with this friend named Flora for some years although they were close at university and Beth and her husband, Dom often went on holiday with Flora and her husband, Lewis as well as having dinner together – they were good friends. Their children are similar ages, Beth having a daughter called Zannah and a son, Ben; Flora having a son, Thomas and a daughter, Emily.

As Beth is waiting outside what she believes to be Flora’s house, although she is not sure that she still lives there due to the disparity of time since their friendship ended, Flora actually pulls up outside the house and Beth overhears her having a phone call with someone, which is causing her mild distress. Not only that, but when she finishes, Flora beckons for two children to get out of the car and Beth is astonished to see that they are young versions of Thomas and Emily. Flora even calls them by the same names. But how could this be? They should be teenagers like Beth’s own children. Is she losing her mind? Or is there something sinister at work here?

Beth’s curiosity is quite rightly piqued and she begins a relentless campaign to discover the truth. It seems unfathomable that these children have not aged at all since Beth knew them and there was another child, a baby called Georgina who was definitely not there with Flora most recently.

When Beth sees Flora again and she runs away from her, startled, Beth’s crusade gathers momentum until it becomes obsessive. Whilst her husband, Dom is curious, he is more keen to leave things well alone and focus on their life now minus Flora and Lewis. As the novel progresses, it transpires that Lewis’ behaviour could sometimes verge on the manic, often with Flora gently trying to reprove him if this happened in public.

Dom’s lack of drive does nothing to stop Beth’s pursuit of information about Flora, Lewis, the teenage Thomas and Emily, the young Thomas and Emily and the people who are pretending to occupy Flora’s house and when Zannah also shows a curiosity, Beth’s determination flowers.

I’m not going to reveal too much here about the way that the book develops as that is what drives it; the suspense at not knowing exactly what Beth saw, whether Flora really is living in that house, if she is still married to Lewis and her true relationship to the children that Beth saw her with in the car.

What I will say is that this keeps you guessing to the very last. Sophie Hannah is brilliant at giving you just enough information to suggest a certain truth whilst not making it completely transparent and this is the tester for good suspense fiction: to keep you dangling sufficiently to hold on and keep reading, feeding tidbits that maintain your interest and propel you through the narrative. I could see why my mother wanted to get back to it.

I have to say that Hannah’s timing was perfect. I was just starting to get irritated with Beth and her inability to leave things alone and was also getting frustrated at being kept guessing when I was led willingly to the dramatic dénouement of the whole thing and left wholly satisfied at the ending.

One thing that I should also mention is that Hannah’s dialogue is dry and witty; she creates teenagers and their sarcasm through the character of Zannah brilliantly and whilst the actual premise of the book is quite dark, the moments like this in the text make the book quite humorous and also make Beth seem less like a nutter and more like a concerned friend. There was a danger in having Beth as a character so determined to pursue something that you could argue has nothing to do with her that her perseverance could be construed as unhealthy obsession – Hannah’s portrayal of Beth’s family relationships keeps her grounded, making her appear as nothing more than overly nosy and so, whilst the book is tense, it is not bleak.

I enjoyed Sophie Hannah. I think what is most impressive about this book is that she takes an encounter that seems fairly innocuous and through a well-developed and executed plot, creates a terse and pacy thriller.

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