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To call Undercurrents a “thriller” would be true in one sense but widely missing the mark in another. Yes, it revolves around the murder of a child, but when the book opens, the trial has already been held and the culprit imprisoned. The novel focuses on Henry, an American scientist, who has spent many years regretting breaking up with Francesca, a young English woman with whom he was travelling around India. He gets the opportunity to travel to England on business and decides to look her up. He arrives in the coastal town on Warbling one dreadful February night and discovers to his regret that Francesca has been imprisoned for the murder of the child, a child with cerebral palsy called Harry. Henry stays finds his way to a guest house, “The House of Enchantment” owned by a middle-aged gay couple, Timothy and Peter who prove themselves to be caring and helpful hosts, who had actually looked after the dead child before the terrible events which led to him drowning in the water underneath the nearby pier. Timothy and Peter have a shrine to Harry in their back garden, and they still claim to be in touch with the boy by psychic means. As Henry hears the story of Harry’s murder, he realises that there is more to it than the simple record of the court proceedings suggest. There is a mystery here to be solved and he sets about uncovering the real story of the crime. Maggie, Francesca’s cousin also lives in the House of Enchantment, and slowly gets drawn into helping Henry get to the bottom of the events of two years ago. The book contains other characters too, the socially inept Neil, impotent, and struggling to maintain a relationship with a new girl-friend by the careful use of Viagra, and Angela, friend of the imprisoned Francesca, who seems to have much to hide. Frances Fyfield is noted for complex novels with a dark psychological twist, and Undercurrents it no exception. Her charac
terisation is brilliant, refusing to create stereotypes, her people are multi-layered complex individuals who surprise us throughout the novel. However, in Undercurrents it is her sense of place which is most striking. We are told on the book jacket that the author lives in Deal on the Kentish coast, and Warbling bears striking similarities to her home town. The castle in Warbling is very like Deal Castle, build in the shape of an English rose, and the town itself with its seedy poverty is so typical of Kentish costal towns. These towns have a sort of sad poignancy like an elderly actress living in poverty yet recalling her days of stardom. South Coast towns are now noted for charity shops, second-hand dealers, run-down sea-front cafes and crumbling piers. Yet, Fyfield’s descriptions of the town are not merely critical, but show a deep affection for Warbling, so obviously based on her home town. I lived in nearby Hastings for many years and recognise in myself the same sort of affection for these towns now well past their best, yet retaining a stalwart character and underlying elegance. Fyfield’s world, created in Undercurrents, is completely absorbing. She describes the place and you’re there, the bitter wind off the sea almost making your cheeks glow as you read. I found reading this book a slow exercise. Normally I race through books but her use of language makes you pause and reflect on the sentences, and its one of those books which you don’t want to finish too quickly anyway. Her people live too. The most appealing characters are Peter and Timothy, the gay owners of the guest house, who’s simple yet elegant (and deeply caring) lifestyle has much to teach us about making the most of what we’ve got and not worrying too much about acquiring more and more worldly goods. As with all good “mysteries” this book finishes with a stunning denouement. I won’t spoil it for any dooyoo re
aders, but all I would say is get to the end and you won’t be disappointed. And the world of Undercurrents will remain with you for some time afterwards. This to me is the sign of a good book: it sort of gets under your skin, and reading somehow makes a miniscule change in your life, perhaps by giving you some new insight, or perhaps just creating a feeling which remains with you long after the last page has been turned. I think you should buy Undercurrents soon and let this absorbing and entertaining read into your life.
British author and criminal lawyer Fyfield has set aside her popular Helen West series for this fine standalone suspense novel (her second after Staring at the Light), with its wonderfully human characters. Twenty years ago, Henry Evans left the English girl he fell in love with on a backpacking trip in India, and he has regretted it ever since. So he leaves Boston to find Francesca Chisholm, only to learn that she is in prison for killing her son Harry, a five-year-old with cerebral palsy.