Map of Blue Book Balloon

4 December 2019

Review - Dead to Her by Sarah Pinborough

Dead to Her
Sarah Pinborough
HarperCollins, 2020
Available as: e, audio (4 June), HB (6 August), 416pp
Read as: Advance e-copy
ISBN: 9780008289072

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of Dead to Her via NetGalley.

When I saw there was a new novel by Sarah Pinborough coming in 2020, and that it was available on NetGalley, I got very excited and put in my request as soon as I could. And when I was lucky enough to be approved, I read it straight away, rather than waiting till next Summer. I appreciate this review is way early but it's been a year or two without a book from this author so just couldn't delay. Look at this as a peek into the future - what you may be reading next August...

You can't tame a wild thing

Dead to Her opens with a party and an entrance.

'Eyes scanned the new wife's gold dress - Versace maybe - figure-hugging but an inch too short for this society crowd. The heels - half an inch too high. The jewellery, thick coils around her neck and hanging from her ears, impressive but attention-seeking. All of the women - nearly all over fifty - would be making the same assessment: She's not one of us.'

William, a wealthy and influential, but ageing, (and White) lawyer practising in stately Savannah, Georgie, has invited his wealthy, influential (and mostly ageing) White friends to meet his new English wife, Keisha (young, not wealthy, Black).

Returned early from a trip to Europe he'd taken after the death of first wife, Eleanor, he's eager to present Keisha to Savannah society... and to begin moulding her into someone that will do him credit. There was an element of Pgymalion in William's attitude to Keisha, if Professor Higgin, besides being sexist and a snob, also had a streak of malice. William may have been taken with Keisa when he spotted her waitressing in a strip club, attracted by her youth and looks and even because she was not like his friends, not like Eleanor.  But that is past. William is home now. Keisha has to fit in, take golf and tennis lessons, behave herself. If she's going to keep her place, she needs to earn it not just by meeting his needs in bed (those little blue pills are stern masters) but by becoming something she's not.

Keisha - one of the two main viewpoint characters - is on the cusp of discovering this, and the first part of the novel follows her as she realises how things are going to be. She comes to recognise the fix she's in, that William is not what she thought he was. But that's actually the least of her worries. She has secrets of her own. She was brought up by a ghastly uncle and aunt who think she's now their meal ticket. She's addicted to tranquillisers ('Thank fuck for her Valium') and she's in a very unfamiliar society. Under the eye of the first wife - in the form of portrait hung over the staircase - living in a house where Eleanor's bedroom, left as it was when she dies, mustn't be touched, intimidated by William's housekeeper Zelda, there are Gothic echoes here from the outset. Add to that Keisha's conviction that she is cursed, her memory of seeing a ghostly boy, and a sultry, voodoo-laden atmosphere, this is a book that seems to invite the uncanny.

From that first appearance Keisha is under suspicion by Marcie, young second wife to Jason, William's partner, who thinks Keisha has an eye on her husband. Marcie knows the ground here, having won Jason away from his first wife, Jacquie (who is also, we soon learn, back in town). Having a lot in common with Keisha - Marcie also come from the wrong side of the tracks, and also, as we will see, has secrets too - she's not unsympathetic to Keisha, but business and position come first in Savannah. Marcie won't be poor again and she won't lose Jason, despite the shine having come off her marriage too. ('It was amazing how you could contain yourself - imprison yourself - if you really tried')

So when the two women are thrown together - Jason is keen that Marcie befriend Keisha and persuade her to put pressure on William to retire - there is bound to be trouble. I often found myself holding my breath as the scenes between them teetered on the verge of blowing up into something truly scandalous. Keisha has a streak of recklessness, of daring, in her which leads her to cross lines and, combined with the tension between the two women, this gives the early parts of the book a real sense of danger, of things getting out of control.

Pinborough has a deft hand at sketching such relationships, giving both the light and the dark sides as she's shown in previous books such as 13 Minutes - there is something of the same atmosphere here, a mix of respectability and naughtiness with boundaries mutable and a sense of risk. That is articulated by Marcie, the other main character here, who's consciously rowing back at times from the "fun" out of concern at provoking Jason and falling from grace. As I've said, Marcie has her own secrets - and she becomes concerned that someone else knows them. Just how much will Jason put up with from her? Just how much will she put up with from him?

But this book is more than a study of male control of women, though it is grounded in that: that's the reality of life among the privileged in Savannah, however much it's disguised by the Club, the parties, the charity fundraising drives. There are obvious nexuses of rebellion such as gay party planners Julian and Pierre, who seem at first as though they're going to be a bit of a cliché - until Pinborough demolishes that: 'I was born Peter. I became Pierre.' There are deeper and more dangerous fractures in the elegant structure too, glitches in the family connections, the twisted links going back generations - more challenging, more scandalous secrets. Jason's father, for example, committed suicide ('the honourable thing') after being caught embezzling clients' money. And others besides which it would be spoilery to describe.

There is also some design working out here. Someone who knows things. Who pulls strings. Keisha, in her fear and panic, fears Eleanor's ghost, thinks she sees evidence of even darker things going on - but neither actually sees what's coming to them. As you'll know if you read Pinborough's books, things can get very nasty, very tense, very quickly. Part of the thrill here is realising just how wide the web has been spun - when that's made clear it drops with the surprise of a master.

Pinborough also has a gift for description. There is some perfect language in this book. The 'luxuriously slow' pace of leisured Savannah life is compared to 'a cat's stretch'. As Keisha suffers withdrawal from her Valium we read that 'The ants in her head were starting to emerge...' In particular there are some very evocative descriptions of sex (not all of it good sex!)  We hear about William's 'lips cold and rubbery - old man mouth' as well as Keisha's fantasy of 'younger hands and warmer lips pressing her back onto the hood of her new red sports car'. The furniture sees a lot of action, so that sometimes it's easy to take an innocuous phrase the wrong way. After reading 'He'd fucked her over the dining table, huffing and puffing at her back' I didn't know for a moment quite how to interpret 'having Marcie across the luncheon table' but it turns out to be just a meal. (That time). We're left in no doubt that Keisha and Marcie may be privileged, may be more comfortable that their backgrounds would have allowed, but they pay a real price, they are little more than assets or trappings to their husbands who retain all the power and whose word goes.

It's a stultifying, claustrophobic life, even before weird things start happening. When they do - and regardless of who may have been reckless in the first place - those young wives, those second wives, those disposable, outsider wives - are the ones directly in line to take the blame and suffer the consequences.

And even behind that there is something else too...

I really enjoyed this book. It's compelling, scary, sharp-eyed but also written with genuine warmth and sympathy for those caught up in the evolving scandal. And the peril and jeopardy last till the very end, with some revelations about one character there is NO WAY I saw coming.

I would strongly recommend.

(If, like me, you've read Pinborough's earlier books you might also spot - I think I'm right here - a little nod to Murder and Mayhem).

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