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  • Writer's pictureCharlie Tyler

Façade by Helen Matthews

This is a superb read and, here’s a warning, the ending will leave you stunned. From the moment the novel opens I was gripped by the need to know all the details about what happened in the garden of The Old Rectory on that fateful day in May 1999. The very same Georgian house which Max and Miriam, haunted by the death of their infant son, steadfastly refuse to leave twenty years later even though its upkeep is destroying their family – especially their daughter, Rachel. It is only on the last page of this book that the whole truth is revealed and what a twisted journey this is! I relished every minute of it.

At the heart of this cleverly plotted thriller are several interlocking mysteries which question the importance of family. All the way through, the narrative reveals the trail of destruction that harbouring secrets and resentment can cause. It is also a story about duty, loss and the need for atonement. As I was reading it, I was filled with a nagging sense that all the tiny incidents happening throughout were going to collide and cause a huge explosion.

The narrative splits between sisters Imogen and Rachel both now grown women. Tragedy has meant Imogen is alone, whilst Rachel shares her life with her partner, Jack and their daughter Hannah. The present-day story starts when Imogen, the older of the two sisters, returns home after a terrible incident in Ibiza. Whereas she could have used this opportunity to reconnect with Rachel and accept the love and sympathy her parents, Miriam and Max, want to give her, she decides she would rather drip-feed revenge upon them all. The story splits between the unfolding present-day events and flashbacks to the past which unravel the reasons for the present ill-feeling.

It’s hard to imagine a more unpleasant and entitled woman than Imogen. I disliked her from the start and loathed her by the end. Okay, so she gives up her seat for a pregnant woman on a bus, but that’s the only positive thing I can say about her although I was impressed by the quick and devious way her mind works. I dared to hope the interest in her niece, Hannah, would go some way to redeeming her, but even that relationship seems to have been cultivated for the sake of her own vanity. There are, of course, events from Imogen’s past which have shaped her into the person she has become, but are they a good enough reason for her constant whinging and sense of entitlement?

Rachel, however, provides the polar opposite personality to her sister. She is the linchpin for her parents, supporting them and their need to stay in The Old Rectory. Keeping them in the family home has become an all-encompassing mission, to the extent where it is ruining her own relationships with Jack and Hannah. With Imogen’s arrival, however, and the havoc which ensues, Rachel realises that if she doesn’t put an end to this charade, she will lose all that is dear to her.

Matthews describes each of her characters with exquisite detail. She has a very good ear for how a teenager acts and speaks; only ‘old people use Facebook’. I especially liked the portrayal of Rachel and Imogen’s parents, Miriam and Max. Max, in his old age, is growing more and more forgetful and, although there are tender moments when Rachel points him to the safe haven of his crossword puzzles, there are also episodes where you see another side of him; his past activity as ‘an unreconstructed chauvinist’ where the men always straighten their ties before doing business. Miriam wears a mask to hide her emotions which she has buried because they are too painful to share; but the cracks in the façade are beginning to show and with the arrival of Howard Dixon, Max’s old boss, she appears to be close to breaking point. There is also the constant soft, selfish tyranny of their insistence that Rachel keeps the truth of her business activities from Imogen, despite the ever-increasing wedge it causes between the women. I grew more and more frustrated with them, wanting to understand why Miriam wouldn’t set Imogen straight because it was heart breaking, at times, to see Rachel’s naïve hope for a family reunion.

The attention to detail is fascinating; the bay trees in their pewter pots standing outside The Old Rectory; the description of Little Venice and Regent’s Canal; the chalked blackboards showing off their daily specials; the magical description of fairy lights on the Lazy Lucy with its sunflower walls and scarlet geraniums – I could almost taste the gin on my tongue as I imagined the sunset brewing. There is gentle historical detail weaved into the story too; I didn’t know Jasmine was the national flower of Tunisia and, seeing the country through the eyes of a young Imogen, I shared her naïve confusion as to why a sheep was being walked on a lead during the festival of EID.

There is also plenty of humour in the form of Carrie, the clueless office assistant who always has a cold and seems to have a knack of making any bad situation worse. I loved the episode with Jack, Rachel and Hannah attempting to go for a family bike ride which despite Rachel’s enthusiasm falls at the first hurdle – it sounded very familiar. The image of the game larder at Gavin’s cottage, described as a sweet shop, is both awful and amusing at the same time. I also thought it was funny when, at a building site, Rachel is in the middle of a huge row with Jack, but then has to break off her rant to get him to help her when she desperately needs the loo. And who would have thought the loathesome GAV 1N, would use real napkins or know how to make a Waldorf Salad?

Two thirds of the way through of this family drama, the whole thing ramps up a notch and I sped through to the end. Just when I thought I had figured everything out I was hit with a massive twist which I did not see coming at all. And the revelations don’t stop there; Matthews keeps piling them on and the reward – a very, very satisfying ending to a marvellous book.

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