Twins, Jo-Anne and Katie, were separated at birth 23 years ago. Although they both live in Belfast, neither is aware of the other's existence. Katie works at a fast food outlet and lives a modest home life with her birth mother, Marie. Jo-Anne leads a more sophisticated life, working in a prestigious accountancy firm and living in her own fashionable apartment. Yet there are some similarities in the girls' lives. Each girl has a charismatic, go-getting boyfriend who is intent on leading her astray. Katie's boyfriend, Declan, lives on the fringes of crime. When he enlists her help to pay off his debts to the local 'heavies', Katie is faced with a tough predicament. Meanwhile Jo-Anne's suave partner, Steven, offers her a chance to participate in a lucrative venture, delivering some 'business papers' to Zurich on behalf of a multi-millionaire philanthropist. Is there something more sinister to this than just the legitimate keeping of information from business rivals? As their parallel stories unfold, Jo-Anne and Katie find themselves getting out of their depths and deeper and deeper into a world of danger, intrigue and moral dilemma. Their hitherto separate worlds are set to collide in a spectacular way, with dramatic, life-changing consequences.
This is the second novel by Gerry McCullough, author of Belfast Girls. It's a fast-paced, gripping read. I'm not usually a quick reader and although I do enjoy a good novel it's rare for me to come across a book that I find hard to put down. I raced through this book as it captured my interest from the first page and held it to the last. I loved the way the action kept alternating between Jo-Anne's story and Katie's because it really built the suspense. Often I would finish a chapter about Katie's plight and desperately want to know what would happen to her next, but I would have to read a chapter on Jo-Anne' situation before returning to Katie's story. Of course, the chapter about Jo-Anne would affect me in exactly the same way, so I just kept on reading. While I was reading this novel I kept telling myself, "Just one more chapter and then I'll put it down" but it never quite worked like that.
It's a very visual novel and I think it would make a super film. I was able to picture the action very clearly in my head and I loved the contrast between the different locations. It gave me a real feel for post ceasefire Belfast, where all the new investment has transformed the city into a vibrant place. Chapters where Jo-Anne and her boyfriend dine in upmarket restaurants are juxtaposed with episodes in the seedy backstreets where Declan meets his dodgy associates. The action also takes us to the tree-lined Bahnhofstrasse of Zurich, the scene of Jo-Anne's ill-fated business trip. There is a beautiful passage where, after going to the bank with the all-important secret contents of the briefcase, Jo-Anne visits the Fraumunster church and is moved by the stained glass windows, which depict scenes from Christ's life. It is ironic that she should have a spiritual moment when she is on a money-making venture in Europe's richest city. It is a very powerful episode because it made me see a different side to Jo-Anne and to recognise her vulnerability and moral conscience, whereas up to that point I had found her a bit cold and shallow.
What's great about this book is that McCullough makes the reader care about the key characters. The most surprising example of this is the character of Declan. On the face of it, he's a character I ought to have strongly disliked. He's a small-time drug dealer who thinks a 9 to 5 job is beneath him and I was not impressed by the way he treated Katie. However, by the end of the book Declan had largely redeemed himself and there was something endearing about his roguish spirit and determination to make something of himself, albeit by unconventional means. To the author's great credit she makes us understand Declan's magnetism and why Katie is so enthralled by him. The dialogue throughout this novel is very credible and the characters are far from stereotypical and evolve as a result of their experiences.
The plot is a little far-fetched, but it is put together so neatly that you never feel that the long arm of coincidence has stretched too far. There were a few things that I found a little odd, such as whether a new mum who had given birth to twins would really just assume she'd had one of each, i.e. a boy and a girl, and wouldn't have bothered to check. However, the portrayal of Marie as a young, single mum, forced by her economic circumstances to only keep one of her babies, is sensitively handled and it's perhaps not that hard to understand why she would want to distance herself from the baby she was going to give up for adoption.
Thrillers are not usually my genre, but this had everything to keep me turning the pages. From the moment Jo-Anne set out on her trip to Zurich as a courier, I felt on edge, certain that she was being watched and as my suspicions were borne out by the events that unfolded, I became more and more intrigued about who could be trusted, who was on which side, and how on earth she was going to get out of it safely. I loved the way the author explored the way people's actions are dictated by such things as love, loyalty, greed, passion and fear, and how these factors can compete with each other and unbalance your moral compass. The bringing together of Jo-Anne and Katie's stories makes for a stunning climax to the novel and its impact on Marie makes particularly interesting reading as she comes to terms with the realisation that she has another daughter.
I was lucky enough to buy this novel as a free Kindle download. It is now available for £1.53 from the Amazon Kindle store, which is still excellent value, in my opinion, for such an entertaining read. It has action, intrigue, and a bit of romance thrown in for good measure. I highly recommend it and I am looking forward to reading more from this fine author.