He Said/She Said - Erin Kelly
He Said/She Said - Erin Kelly *****
**Safe review: There are NO SPOILERS below**
There are all kinds of paranoia suspense thrillers clogging up the bestseller charts and some of them are pretty unconvincing in their plotting and crude in their use of shock tactics that exploit women's vulnerabilities. Erin Kelly isn't afraid to take on some of those same basic fears but shows how it can be done tactfully, creatively and suspensefully in He Said/She Said. The sense of menace is there right from the start - even the title hints at that idea of conflicting viewpoints from male and female perspectives - and Erin Kelly it builds on it, ramping up the tension at every stage with precision and authenticity in the detail.
Kelly's extraordinarily good writing means that He Said/She Said bristles with intrigue and menace right from the first page, even before the nature of the danger is specified. All we know is that Kit and Laura are in hiding, living under assumed names over an incident and a court case that took place 16 years ago in 1999. They are trying to keep their identity hidden from someone called Beth, and also believe they have something to fear from someone called Jaime - but they are sure they have covered their tracks so well that neither could ever find them.
Except for the fact that Kit has an unusual interest in following total solar eclipses. If there's a chance of a sighting of a full eclipse anywhere in the world, Kit will be travelling there, and a heavy beard might not be enough to disguise his identity from someone who might be keen - for whatever reason - to find him. It was during a total eclipse festival in 1999 that the event happened that changed their lives, and it was at another in Zambia where Kit and Laura were almost found again. Now in 2015, Kit has gone off towards the Faroe Islands, leaving a pregnant Laura behind. The events that they hoped were behind them however are about to resurface.
What happened at the back at the festival in Cornwall in 1999 is too much to give away up front in a review, but it involves Kit and Laura having to testify in court. The case is a difficult one and it looks like it is going to come down to the word of one person over another - a case of he said/she said. Laura knows that her witness testimony is going to prove vital, so placed under pressure in the dock she slightly exaggerates her statement with a little white lie. It's done for what Laura believes are the right reasons, done to secure what she believes is the right outcome in the court case, but this action is going to come back to haunt her and Kit in ways that she can't possibly imagine.
What is great about He Said/She Said, aside from the suspense element - which is handled very effectively - is that it poses a real world dilemma that forces the reader to consider how they might behave in a similar situation; a situation that it is all too easy to get caught up in. Placed in such a predicament, you have to consider whether you wouldn't do exactly the same thing, and unwittingly have to make a particularly difficult judgement call. Erin Kelly doesn't just pose this as an academic question in a moral dilemma, but makes it feel viscerally real.
While the author manages to centre the plot on a question that demands the reader's complicity and own emotionally-charged personal involvement, it's the quality of Erin Kelly's writing that makes it work so well. Every sentiment and feeling is explored authentically, and the reader who has no choice but to identify with the emotions it stirs up. Even the use of the eclipse chasing is a wonderful idea as a structural basis for the novel; carrying with it the notion of the progress of the stars following a predetermined path that seems to be inevitable, predictable and inescapable.
The eclipse is also a huge earth-changing event that will cast a huge shadow, and one eclipse back in 1999 has cast a shadow over the lives of Kit and Laura for the past 16 years. The cloud cover at the eclipse in 2015 is a disappointment for Kit, but when it passes, it casts a new light on their lives, exposing what really happened in the past. You can expect then a conclusion with a few well-timed shocks, twists and revelations that will have you re-examining facts you thought you could safely rely upon, but - as you should already have guessed from the title of the novel alone - that is kind of the point of a suspense thriller, and even more so in He Said/She Said. You can take my word for that.
He Said/She Said is published by Hodder & Stoughton.