|Image from titanbooks.com|
Titan, 27 September 2016
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book.
Zoe Whittaker has had a difficult start in life. Growing up poor before her adoptive mother died, she dropped out of college, and then things fell apart. Really apart, that is: leaving criminals after her for revenge and her old life, necessarily, abandoned.
However she put all that behind her, changing her name, and marrying a wealthy New York banker. Now she's a lady of leisure, spending her time arranging charity fundraisers and NOT dwelling on the past. As long as she's careful that nobody from that past catches up with her - and that her husband stays ignorant of it - nothing can go wrong, can it...?
This thriller takes a perhaps somewhat hackneyed theme - the buried past - and jolts electricity into it till the genre revives - and the pages crackle with tension. There result is a story with multiple themes: Henry, the husband, exemplifies a certain type of controlling spouse, always pawing at Zoe, claiming rights over her body as though it were his property, whenever and wherever he chooses, and becoming creepily jealous at how she chooses to spend her time.
Behind that, there are are definite overtones of the Gothic: Henry's first wife died and we know little about her, there's a disapproving family retainer who seems to be judging Zoe harshly, and most of all perhaps the sense that somebody is watching. Strange things begin to happen - is it coincidence, or is the past really catching up?
Zoe is isolated and trapped. She's out of touch with her friends. Her adoptive mother is dead. She has no idea who her real parents are. She keeps secrets from her husband, and his behaviour is scary at worst and suffocating at best. So she has little alternative but to investigate those strange things herself.
I really enjoyed this book. Zoe is a remarkable character - brave and resourceful but not perfect, perhaps too trusting at some times, too fearful to trust at others. She's already overcome a lot in her life so this isn't the typical 'unsuspecting woman gets into a load of trouble' story you might expect. At the same time, things get so convoluted, and she is so alone that nor is she effortlessly on top of everything. Moretti treads a fine line here, both keeping surprises coming and having them (mostly) character driven, and she manages it with aplomb.
And also constructs a surprise twist that I really didn't see coming - I mean, I had some suspicions, but the reveal was still a genuine surprise.
The book's also good on friendships. The details of Zoe's life with her spiky flatmate and colleague Lydia are convincing - you can't but help wish Zoe had followed Lydia's advice a number of times that she didn't - and Zoe's recollections of her life with Evelyn, her adoptive mother, are deeply touching. (Evelyn herself comes across vividly, in some ways the most well rounded and likeable character in the book).
Indeed these warm friendships give the book some real heart, even as the plot unwinds and Zoe goes through some bad stuff you're willing her on, wanting better things for her. It's strong stuff but in short: The Vanishing Year is a great read.