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I was wandering up London Road in Liverpool recently when I spotted a box of books outside a second hand bookshop priced at 10p each. 10p! Never able to resist a bargain I dived in and surfaced with a handful of books, amongst them a hardback copy of this one by Frances Hegarty, better known as Frances Fyfield. The name wasn't familiar to me, but high praise from Rendell, Forster and Mantel on the cover and a glance at the first page persuaded me to part with my lucre. I have since discovered she is an award winning author, praised by some as a 'grande dame' of crime fiction, but I wouldn't know as I only dip into the genre now and then. This is her fourth novel, originally published in 1991. The cover of mine is typically old fashioned, with a spooky looking doll in a shadowy corner. This was the first book Fyfield originally published as 'Hegarty', (her real name), because it is a psychological thriller rather than her more usual crime fiction. Her most popular novels are the Helen West series - (solicitor/crown prosecutor West was played by Amanda Burton in a 2002 tv mini-series).
The prologue shows us a young child locked in a room, starving and neglected. We don't know exactly why she's there, my first assumption was that she was in the house of a psychopath, maybe one of several children locked up to be abused/murdered. Then we realise that there are normal day to day sounds going on in the rest of the house and that there are people in the house next door.
Katherine Allendale looks as though she has the perfect life, but it's all a facade. Despite the perfect clothes and hair, gymnasium body, designer house, two young children and wealthy, handsome husband, she lives in a state of mental and emotional panic and is completely under the control of her seemingly charming spouse, David. Her inner uncertainty allows him to become ever more domineering and controlling, and the book follows his ascent into complete domination of the family culminating in the locking up their overweight and 'difficult' four year old daughter, as shown in the prologue.
I found Katherine a difficult character to understand. I don't think Fyfield really gets under her skin. We learn about her background which involved several foster parents, but that's still not enough to understand her inability to protect her daughter. I imagine for most people it's nigh on impossible to empathise with someone implicated in child abuse and my main sense of involvement with her came from wanting to shake her and tell her to wake up. We see how manipulated and abused she is, which is probably why her thought processes are confused. She can't see things clearly, but I found her too weak to really care about.
If Katherine is vague, David remains completely unfathomable. Again we hear some of his background, from the point of view of his mother, but only once towards the end do we actually go inside his head and see something of what he thinks and feels. Because of this he is either a shadowy figure or else a one dimensional baddie for much of the story.
The book is written from several different standpoints, usually in the third person, although it does jump to first person in chapters narrated by the posh next door neighbour; Susan Pearson Thorpe, who I felt to be the most real personality. Other characters include David's mother Sophie, who holds the key to David's background, but seems rather simple and ineffectual when it comes to dealing with her son; Katherine's sister, Mary, also emotionally damaged by their childhood and jealous of Katherine's luck, as well as other friends, neighbours and a social worker.
Everyone seems to be under David's sway, even Katherine's female friends think she is the one in the relationship that has problems, and that he has to put up with her. This is often the way abusers work, by separating their partner from their friends and family and twisting the facts so that it seems as though the victim is the unreasonable one. It's quite a complicated scenario to pull off convincingly. I did wonder why, particularly the other women in the story, didn't ask more questions or offer emotional support to Katherine, as I felt sure I would do in their place, but of course everyone has their own lives to deal with and the people around the Allendales had problems too, which meant they didn't notice the abuse happening almost under their noses. The way circumstances contrive to make everyone unhelpful to Katherine at a time she needs help could seem like too much coincidence, but abuse takes place in the midst of society, so what may seem contrived is perhaps an attempt to understand and explain why abuse can go unnoticed. I don't even think there needs to be much justification given for people failing to act, sadly it's all too easily understood in most cases.
I occasionally found the writing style muddled. The grammatical structure could be unusual and I had to re-read segments to get them clear in my head. There also seemed to be an assumption I would always understand what the author meant without it being explained. Some of this may have been down to giving clues for what was to follow, but it often felt like unnecessary obfuscation. Here's an example of an untidy sentence from the early pages:
"For reasons or pastimes better left unquestioned, Jeanetta was in her own room, mimicking Mummy by tidying up while Mummy herself tidied with less heart but more efficiency in the master bedroom."
Why 'reasons or pastimes'? Wouldn't the first part of that sentence have been better cut out altogether? This was the sort of thing that made me wonder if this book was going to be worth my time, but I ploughed on as I found the story content to override considerations of style. The plight of the child I read about at the start kept me reading and so I put up with the odd unwieldy sentence. Whilst not a big deal, this did stop the book from being a page turner for me, because I kept stopping to puzzle over sentences that I would have preferred to fly through.
The pace is erratic. Whilst I have criticised it for sometimes being muddled and vague, in parts it was tense, suspenseful and powerful. The prologue was certainly well written and some of the final scenes made me quite tearful. One thing that annoyed me was the change in pace at crucial moments. A switch to another character viewpoint at an exciting point is a ploy not uncommon in thrillers, but one that often irks me. It only works well when each chapter ends at a similar level. To be whisked from a scene where someone is at the edge of terror and land in the house of a neighbour who has no clue what is happening and is reminiscing about days gone by is the sort of thing to make me throw a book down in disgust. But I didn't. There was enough here to make me want to read on to the end and I would be interested to try some of her more recent novels to see how her writing has improved.
After an up and down beginning I started to enjoy this novel. Considering it was written nearly twenty years ago, it felt very current. There are flashes of brilliance here, as well as occasional turgidity. Overall I would say The Playroom is a promising novel rather than an accomplished one, but worth a read if you've nothing better going on, and definitely worth 10p!
latest edition details on Amazon:
Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: Time Warner Paperbacks (1 May 2003)