The narrator of Kate O'Riordan's new book, 'A disturbing thriller of sexual obsession and family secrets', is a middle-aged woman. Oddly, I only realised this half-way through the first chapter, having what some people might call a 'self-reflective reading style', where I constantly assume that the lead character is myself. (Let me tell you, reading 'Gone Girl' was no picnic).
Rosalie Douglas is everywoman, if everywoman were sponsored by John Lewis - a happily married mother of two, close friends with her parish priest, who prefers to play cheesy rock music whilst cooking Sunday roasts. (I think you can see clearly why I assumed she was me). Unfortunately for Rosalie, very few satisfying thrillers have been written about middle-class women pottering about in the kitchen and garden, so things are about to change for the worse. Firstly, her teenage son dies, drowning abroad - a death so horribly avoidable that I had almost as much trouble believing it as Rosalie does - until I googled 'death by drowning' and saw that more than 400 people drowned in the UK alone last year.
It is this horrible, all-too believable accident that sets the novel off into its tailspin - that sees Rosalie's marriage falter; that turns her daughter into a person she no longer recognises; that sends her to a group grief counselling session where she meets the charismatic Jed. Because, as with all good novels, this one is messy - coincidences and happenstance and misinterpretations collide, as in life. There are no easy paths to follow, no simple cause and effect. This is a thriller, certainly - my copy was large and hardbacked and the dust jacket bore what seemed to be the sea from Jaws, but it's also well-written and thought provoking, and populated with fully-fleshed out characters. (Some of whom, even I had to admit, were different from myself).
One of the great criticisms levied at the Bronte sisters is that they do not know how to deal with men - knowing, in real life, only their brother and father, the male characters in their novels remain as ciphers or signifiers, as opposed to their flesh-and-blood female counterparts. I was reminded of this during Penance, where although the catalysts are men, the characters we care about are all women, and all the action is told through their experiences. Personally, I think this adds tremendously to the power of the novel - certainly I was forced to re-assess my knee-jerk reaction that the interior life of a middle-aged housewife would hold no interest.
Rather, the potency of this story comes from this juxtaposition: the frightening disconnect between pleasant family life and all the gore, sex and violence that has no place whatsoever in suburbia. Although the events that drive the plot are dramatic - death, betrayal, theft, and so on, the heft of the novel lies with its universality. Penance uses its dramatic elements to explore themes of grief, responsibility and love, all of which O'Riordan handles with a grace that stays with the reader long after they have finished reading.