5/16/18

Our House as Advertised: A Twisty Mystery


Our House (2018)
By Louise Candlish
Simon and Schuster, 416 pages.
★★★★

Imagine you are living in your dream house, a large elegant home in an exclusive part of South London where your neighbors brag about soaring house values and are talking millions, not thousands. You have everything you ever wanted—a handsome husband, an interesting professional job, two adorable young boys, a nice car, and a leafy manicured backyard. Then it all goes wrong. It's bad enough when you catch your husband bonking a neighbor in the kids' playhouse and throw him out. It gets worse when you go out of town for a few days, come home, and your furniture is gone, and another family has moved into your house. Apparently it's all perfectly legal, as there's a bill of sale signed by your estranged husband and yourself!

That's the nightmare facing Fiona Lawson in Louise Candlish's domestic noir Our House. She knows she never signed over her home, but Bram (Abraham) is nowhere to be found. Slowly Fiona comes to the realization that she's been a naïve dupe. It wasn't the first time Bram strayed, and what was she thinking when she entered into a "nesting" separation agreement in which she and Bram rented a nearby apartment so that, in the name of stability for the children, they could split custody and live-in dates until the divorce settlement?

Candlish's novel seems as if will be a cookie cutter gullible woman versus deceitful man tale. That's part of it, but this is indeed—as promos tag it— a "twisty mystery." In many ways it's a cautionary tale of the snowballing effects of bad decision-making by both Bram and Fiona. Bram is the mug shot for testosterone poisoning and male rage, and clueless Fiona is the quintessence of a helicopter parent who sacrifices her own desires and commonsense in the name of protecting her children. But, again, if this was all it was, Our House could be relegated to the pulp fiction bin. Louise Candlish is too skilled to stop at the clichéd or obvious.  

Before this novel concludes we tread a lot of ground, including peeks into the Dark Web, con artistry, blackmail, and even podcasts. Fiona willingly participates in a series called "The Victim" to warn other women of what can happen to them and detail how easily she was duped. This, of course, means she opens herself for comments from both sympathetic listeners and trolls. Collectively they act as a makeshift Greek chorus that judge her every action, presuppose her motives, and cast her as either courageous or an idiot. Listener comments are one of three voices in the novel, which also switches between Fiona's point of view and Bram's, his both in the present and in Word documents.

Our House could be seen as a confirmation of Sir Walter Scott's line, "Oh what a tangled web we weave/When first we practice to deceive." Candlish takes it step further and shows how deceit snowballs to the point where each new falsehood is a shovel for a self-dug grave. In such a novel, trust is a moving target and the book's very conclusion rests upon how one decides upon whom and where to place one's trust. I will admit I did not see coming the things that transpired.

Candlish creates characters with depth, a touch that extends beyond Fiona and Bram to both secondary and incidental figures. Like all gifted suspense writers, she is so gifted in misdirection that it's only after you've finished that you realize that several of the setups are implausible. Do we use the phrase page-turner any more? If not, call Our House a real finger-swiper!

Rob Weir





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