When renowned artist Marianne Glass is found dead in her Oxford garden, the police rule it a tragic accident. There’s no sign of a break-in or evidence that anyone else was in the house when she fell from the roof.
Rowan Winter isn’t convinced. She and Marianne may not have seen each other for ten years, but they were once the closest of friends—practically sisters—and Rowan knows Marianne suffered crippling vertigo; she might have gone up to the roof to smoke, but she would never have ventured close to the edge.
With the Glasses looking for someone to stay at the house and keep an eye on Marianne’s latest set of paintings while they settle the estate, Rowan sees an opportunity to investigate what really happened to her old friend and reconnect with the family that once regarded her as one of their own. However, being back in Oxford stirs up memories, good and bad, and, one by one, the secrets of the past begin to resurface. More than that, it soon becomes clear that someone is, indeed, watching the house.
Keep You Close is a taut and twisting story of obsession, buried secrets and the burning desire to belong.
I first encountered Lucie Whitehouse back in 2008 when I read her debut novel, The House at Midnight. At the time, I was in the early days of my Ph.D., which I wrote on what I would come to term ‘campus clique crime novels’, and eagerly reading anything involving sinister goings on between university friends. I loved The House at Midnight, in which a tight-knit group of friends gather at a secluded country house in Oxfordshire and, over the course of a summer, hidden truths come to light and tensions begin to rise. It’s sinister, Gothic and claustrophobic: exactly my kind of book. In the interim, Whitehouse has penned two other titles, The Bed I Made (2010) and Before We Met (2014), which I haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading. However, with my thesis now firmly in the rearview mirror, I’ve once again begun seeking out dark and cloistered stories of youthful paradises gained and lost, in which the repressed threatens to return at every juncture and nothing is quite so idyllic as it first appears. So I was thrilled to discover Whitehouse had a new novel that promised to fit the bill.
Keep You Close is a beautifully crafted narrative. In the early chapters, Whitehouse whisks the reader from the drizzled grey of London to romantic Oxford with its tree-lined streets, cosy university pubs and cafes and rarified collegiate air. Being back in the Glass house prompts Rowan to reminisce about her school and university days: Sunday afternoons browsing in bookshops, sleepovers and debating art and current affairs with Marianne and her family around the crowded kitchen table. But shadows rise at the corners of these nostalgic scenes as Whitehouse begins dropping hints about another untimely death in the family, Marianne’s subsequent breakdown and the ten-year silence between supposed best friends. Even as Rowan searches for answers about the woman Marianne became after graduation, she’s aware that she too has become a subject of scrutiny and feels unsafe in the house she once thought of as home.
She was starting to develop a siege mentality about the house, she recognised, as if as soon as the sun went down, a ring of darkness pulled around it, filled with threats. She’d never liked being alone at night. As a teenager, she used to sit up until the small hours when her father was travelling, her body tensing at every sound outside. Several times over the years she’d stood at the back door, knuckles white on the carving knife as she waited for the handle to turn from the other side. She’d gone to school exhausted. She’d be able to cope with that house now but Fyfield Road was different.
The story hinges on small but clever twists so that the big picture is constantly shifting and nothing is quite as it first appears. Even if the reader guesses where the story is going, there’s a good deal of suspense in seeing how all the pieces come together to drive the story towards its thrilling conclusion.
Rowan is my kind of protagonist. She’s ambitious, savvy and plays her cards close to her chest. But she’s also vulnerable and fragile: a lonely young woman yearning to return to a lost world. The story is narrated in the third person limited from her perspective, and Whitehouse plays out the story as Rohan would have the reader experience it, showing off her memories from their best angles and glossing over the unsavoury and inconvenient until necessity demands.
The minor players are also well-drawn, each with their own secrets and failings so that, for much of the story, it’s not clear whose side anyone is on and which characters know more than they’re telling.
But the thing I love most about Keep You Close is the primal theme that runs throughout, the need to find and protect our tribe. It’s ultimately a story about the desire to belong, to be loved and accepted at all costs. It also pivots around what, to me, seems a very female form of friendship: the childhood besties who will do anything for each other and share a bond stronger even than blood.
Overall, Keep You Close is an intense and tightly-worked story that makes for a dark and gripping read.
Thank you to Bloomsbury for providing a copy of Keep You Close in exchange for an honest review.
Thanks also to Grammarly for picking up 6 critical issues in my draft of this review. If, like me, you have trouble with typos, do give Grammarly a go!
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