Rachel Kendall’s fascinating debut, Stranger Days, is compelling and disturbing in equal measure. A literary psychological thriller set in Paris, the book is part memoir, part fever dream, the finely wrought prose never failing to unsettle the reader. I read the book compulsively, staying up late into the night to keep turning the pages. With each one, I felt myself tip-toeing on a knife-edge of darkness, driven to read on by each new secret, each intimate revelation.
The novel centres on a pair of lovers who leave everything familiar behind and go to Paris to lose themselves in cafés and flea markets, galleries and gardens, art, sex and adventure. In the white heat of the Parisian summer, the pair lose more than that, particularly the sensitive narrator, teetering on the brink of an existential crisis. Her partner Z is an absent presence, an easygoing blur compared to her vivid consumption of the sights, sounds and smells of the city, her frenetic imagination that spins each passer-by into a character, each shadowy doorway into the opening of a new dark story.
As Kendall’s vibrant prose draws you deeper into the novel’s dark heart, the city of Paris itself becomes an increasingly complex character. In the first pages, its creative vibe and attractiveness to poets and artists is lovingly (and sometimes sardonically) evoked. Later, driven by insatiable curiosity, the protagonist strays ever further from the beaten track, simultaneously attracted and repelled by the fetid city putrefying in the blistering heat, discovering the darker side of Paris, its hidden depths… and shallows. The book reads like a love letter to the city at points, or maybe a love/hate letter, with layers of conflicting feeling that shimmer and make you grimace by turns.
For the city’s best kept secret is Elodie, a mysterious girl, seductive and mercurial, intimate and cruel, who forms a too-fast friendship with the narrator. After their first chance meeting, the pair collide more and more often. Elodie seeps into the narrator’s writing and thoughts, her dreams and fantasies, until the two begin to merge into each other.
It is this absorbing evocation of the intense attraction and savagery that can co-exist in a friendship that makes the book a must-read. From the moment Elodie appears on the scene, the novel is impossible to put down. The two women are friends and enemies and almost lovers, their intense connection threatening to obliterate both of them. With each sidelong glance, the fine wire of the novel’s tension tightens, inexorably drawing the reader on to breaking point.
This startling debut is highly recommended. The writing is beautiful and the plot will compel you to turn the pages. You won’t see the ending coming and it will knock you flat.
Stranger Days is available to buy here.
Rachel Kendall is a thirty-nine year old writer and editor (Sein und Werden) living in Manchester with her daughter of much-messness. The house is full of junk, dead things (some stuffed, others skeletal), books, fairy wings, a toy tea-set, a selection of Eeyores, many films, plastic dinosaurs, much vintage jewellery and Owen the armadillo. She collects animal-feet brooches and loves the printed word.
In 2009 her short story collection The Bride Stripped Bare was published by Dog Horn Publishing. Her Paris novel Stranger Days has just been released by Oneiros Press.
Editors’ Choice: reviews of Harriet Lane, Her, Amanda Jennings, The Judas Scar, and Daniel Woodrell, The Maid’s Version
The protagonists of psychological thrillers are very often in thrall to the dark secrets of the past: characters go through their lives imprisoned by the past; or they take flight from it, imagining they can escape; or, just when they least expect it, someone from a former life resurfaces and threatens to destroy them. Harriet Lane’s superb, chilling novel Her begins with a chance meeting between two women whose lives were intertwined in the distant past. In Amanda Jennings’ gripping thriller The Judas Scar, the central relationship from the past is male rather than female, and, from the disturbing prologue on, the reader knows that male brutality and violence are at the core of both past and present narratives. Daniel Woodrell’s extraordinary piece of Southern noir, The Maid’s Version, gives us a past secret that is a communal tragedy rather than a private torment, and we hear the voices of an entire town as we try to untangle the lies and evasions that have proliferated in the decades following a dance hall explosion decades earlier. Read our reviews of Harriet Lane, Amanda Jennings and Daniel Woodrell.
Crime fiction has often been accused of indulging in the clichés of the dangerous and the endangered woman – the femme fatale, the female victim. The degree to which such generalisations oversimplify the genre is apparent if one reads the steadily growing number of women crime writers who, from the 1940s on, have created subtle, diverse explorations of a great range of female protagonists – from damaged children and wilful teenagers to deceived partners, oppressed housewives, guilty mothers, tough businesswomen. Increasingly in the twenty-first century, psychological thrillers have given readers a chance to enter into the subjective perceptions of non-stereotypical women in ways that subvert and reappropriate some of the most familiar and time-honoured generic conventions.
Our focus here is on teen-centred crime fiction. Some of the most highly regarded contemporary female crime writers have written compellingly about teenage experience – Megan Abbott, Laura Lippman, Tana French. They represent transgression, resistance to constraints on female agency, dawning sexuality, and, above all, female friendship – being best friends and also, of course, betraying and destroying those friendships. Amongst recent novels, two of the outstanding examples of teen-centred psychological thrillers are Megan Abbott’s The Fever and Tana French’s The Secret Place. Read our reviews of Megan Abbott and Tana French.
Editors’ Choice: reviews of Christobel Kent, The Crooked House; D.D. Johnston, The Secret Baby Room; Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the Train; and Liane Moriarty, The Last Anniversary
A mark of good crime fiction is that readers can intensely experience the spaces through which the characters move or in which they are trapped. Whether they are in urban mean streets or small towns, buildings are more than background or setting. They can generate the fears and desires that drive characters to commit crimes; they conceal secrets and retain the impress of crimes committed; protagonists may dread to enter them or feel a false sense of security when they lock the doors. Three excellent recent crime novels construct gripping narratives that centre on the manifold ways in which buildings are perceived, experienced and remembered. In Christobel Kent’s atmospheric novel, The Crooked House, the house of the title is a gothic embodiment of past terrors, containing the lost narrative of a murdered family; in D. D. Johnston’s forthcoming The Secret Baby Room, an almost equally gothic building, a derelict tower block, summons up the protagonist’s worst fears; and in Paula Hawkins’ tense thriller, The Girl on the Train, what we’re led to reflect on is the deceptive uniformity, the apparent interchangeability of suburban houses, so blank that it is easy to miss their role in concealing disastrous and violent acts. Also reviewed is a novel first published a few years ago (2006), Liane Moriarty’s The Last Anniversary, a playful, enthralling mix of romance and mystery, in which houses stimulate desire and feed the imaginative hunger for enigmas. Read our reviews of Christobel Kent, D.D. Johnston, Paula Hawkins, and Liane Moriarty.