The Friend review: Domestic affairs

A child is fighting for his life in hospital. The mother is far away, stuck on a train and desperately trying to reach that hospital. She may be responsible for her child having come to grievous harm. Then again, she may not be. Teresa Driscoll’s psychological thriller begins on this explosive note.

Former journalist Teresa Driscoll served on the crime beat for years, and says she was struck by how many seemingly ‘normal’ people committed horrific crimes. So it would seem but natural that both her bestselling works of fiction are psychological thrillers, more whydunnits than whodunnits, making them all the more interesting.

In The Friend, Driscoll explores why people do what they do, how past experience can shape one’s present behaviour and attitudes. As examples, the respective pasts of many of the main characters in the book influence their present, some of it bringing dire consequences in its wake.

The mise-en-scene? Sophie, her husband Mark, and their son Ben are living in the village of Tedbury in Devon. They have moved there on Sophie’s insistence, and this decision, apart from certain other circumstances, has led to tension and unhappiness in the household. Then a newcomer, Emma Carter, and her son Theo, move in, and mystery and murder ensue.

Interestingly, children, whether around/ longed for/ not wanted at all, form the core of this thriller. Sophie, despite having only one child, yearns for another and finds herself unwittingly sabotaging her present with that yearning. On the peg that Sophie suffered from severe post-natal depression after Ben was born, the author skillfully weaves plot points which reveal how crippling such depression can be, for not just the mother but the whole family, and how it can lead to unintended consequences all around.

Another important character in the book desperately wants to become a mother. This desperation will impact the terrible circumstances that will erupt later in her life. The way Emma Carter, the friend referred to in the title, treats her son Theo, makes clear to the reader that Emma is not all that she pretends to be, and is in fact pretty dangerous.

The men in the story and their relationship with children are also well-charted side stories. In the past, Sophie’s father looked after her when her alcoholic mother abandoned her. In the present, Mark is unwilling to have another child, thus deepening the tension between him and Sophie. Matt Hill, a former cop and a character from a previous book of Driscoll’s, is a new father here. This gives him the resolve to doggedly pursue a case of murder in order to save a child.

The advantage of a psychological thriller, as opposed to a regular one, is that it affords the writer space for tangential explorations. Driscoll gives us the sense and feel of life lived in a village like Tedbury, as well as a close look at its inhabitants. There are whimsical detours into the lives of some of the peripheral characters. We get to know not just the deputy inspector of the village, but also her living arrangements and her eccentric roommate. There is an interlude where Matt Hill grapples with the limited vocabulary of his toddler daughter, which is both amusing and charming. Mark’s interactions with his mother are neatly tied in with the plot; the guilty relief he feels when spending time with her away from the fraught atmosphere of his house; his regret that his mother does not ask after Sophie more often; his realisation that perhaps this was because his mother did not understand the post-natal depression that Sophie was struggling with. In her time, as the older woman tells Mark, women “just got on with it.”

The story alternates between the present, in which Sophie is stuck on a train trying to reach Ben in hospital, and the past where events that led to Ben, Theo and Emma being in a critical state, slowly unfold. None of the psychological underpinning takes away from the tension embedded in the tale, a tension that is ratcheted up gradually. However, a reader more used to the fast pace of ordinary thrillers may well find the deliberately measured pace of this book a tad slow.

At the climax, the book focuses on what one is capable of when pushed to the wall, when all gloves come off.

This is not the ubiquitous thriller where a cop is hunting a serial killer. This is about a killer in the house. Nobody suspects. Nobody knows. Except the reader.

  • Book review
  • Fiction