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Caroline Spalding
Features Correspondent
4:55 PM 15th February 2021
arts

Review: Safe And Sound By Philippa East

Philippa East published her debut novel, Little White Lies, in 2020 to critical acclaim: it was longlisted for The Guardian’s ‘Not The Booker Prize’ and shortlisted for the CWA John Creasey ‘New Blood Dagger’ Award 2020. Safe and Sound, her second novel, has been eagerly anticipated and does not disappoint.

The scene is set from the start: Housing Association officer Jennifer Arden must visit the flat of a tenant who has fallen behind with the rent and, accompanied by two bailiffs, they make the shocking discovery of a body that has lain unnoticed for ten months and of which little now remains. The perturbing discovery sets off in the protagonist’s mind a chain of thoughts that become tangled with her own past experience and her own mental challenges.

Written from the first-person perspective, Jennifer does not conceal her feelings from the reader. Setting off for the visit, she feels ill at ease. She reminds herself that collecting rent is almost a moral obligation, connected to her job, which we come to see provides her with a grounding, to keep two feet placed firmly on the ground: it is necessary, given her knowledge of her own inner fragility. However, one wonders whether this discomfort is a case of ‘but for the grace of God go I’, or just a manifestation of her own instability, her fear of the unknown.

The deceased tenant has been absent from the world for almost a year, yet bizarrely, she has not been missed. The police get involved and we learn that the tenant had been a lively and vivacious person, with a loving family, and a big network of friends and associates. Something does not add up.

With police enquiries proving inconclusive, Jennifer takes it on herself to try to piece together the jigsaw, despite warning herself against involvement. The novel is therefore this story – the work of an amateur detective, who we cannot fully trust to make the right decisions – we become increasingly concerned for the protagonist’s wellbeing with every step she takes. We know she has suffered with anxiety and panic attacks; she keeps herself together by virtue of a stringent routine, balancing her work with her devotion to her young son, Charlie. I recognise her predicament – intelligent yet vulnerable, able to tell herself that her thoughts and fears are unfounded, but always in danger of succumbing to the black hole that anxiety often presents. There must, we think, be something from her past that is the root cause, some trauma that permeates her current existence, always a reminder, persistently a threat to sensible and rational thought. Paranoia is her constant companion; guilt follows close behind – but why?

As much as Jennifer is desperate to uncover the mystery of the tenant’s death and what came before, we too are keen to discover what Jennifer is all about. The two plotlines are inextricably linked, and whilst we progress, the tension, the suspense, the doubt continues to build. We might suspect, we might try to piece it all together ourselves, but with the constant doubt that is exuded by Jennifer, we can never be sure. True to the book blurb, it really does get under your skin.

Philippa East
Philippa East
The writing is very narrative-driven. There is little in the way of descriptive prose, yet that does not detract from the story; in fact it is almost unnecessary. However, we are aware throughout of an almost constant cold – the story takes place in winter, the protagonist is acutely aware of the temperature and this in turn gives resonance to the events unfolding – they, too, bring a chill. The novel could translate seamlessly into a screenplay – presenting a compelling psychological thriller for the screen.

Philippa East has clearly applied her professional skills as a clinical psychologist and therapist – there is understanding and there is empathy. But at no point did I pity the protagonist; yes, I felt for her, but in no sense does she conjure pathos. Because she has inner strength, she is aware that she is fragile, yet she has robustly worked beyond this to get to the here and now. Yet she is equally aware that these spiralling events threaten to swallow her back down the plughole of her own inner turmoil.

East uses that same psychological insight in her depiction of character. There are no unconvincing characters – yet our response, by way of the protagonist, is that they remain detached – neither she nor we are ready to get any closer.

A more intuitive reader, a better sleuth than myself, may well have been able to solve the puzzle sooner, but I was kept in the dark until the closing pages. Perhaps this is why I was able to read the book in a single sitting – it captivated me. At the start I confess to not feeling the ‘grab’ that some books present in the opening chapters; however, as the story unfolded, via a myriad twists, turns, doubts and concerns, I really felt as if I too were snarled in the knot that Jennifer had uncovered in trying to determine the cause of the deceased tenant’s fate.

Chilling, suspenseful, gripping and engaging – even for those, like me, who wouldn’t usually opt for the genre of psychological thriller, I would challenge anyone who said they could put it down. Page by page, the puzzle gets more complex, the pieces that we thought were nicely aligned morph into a new shape, we don’t always trust the narrator, we don’t trust those around her and we perceive her fear, her uncertainty. Safe and Sound is written in a simple manner – no superfluous words, no fancy language, but the subject matter is anything but straightforward. It is a complex web in which the reader becomes entangled, but one from which we have no active desire to escape – this book really does keep you turning the pages until the very end.

Safe and Sound is published 18 February by HQ, an imprint of Harper Collins.

Pre-order a copy here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B08D7ZWZVV/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_hsch_vapi_tkin_p1_i1