Under the Harrow
With the success of books like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, psychological thrillers are enjoying a rebirth of popularity. Flynn Berry’s debut novel, Under the Harrow fits nicely into this category. Though a bit rougher around the edges than some I’ve read from more accomplished authors, this novel still held my interest and at just over 200 pages, it’s just the sort of roller coaster read one can finish in a single sitting.
The plot centers on two sisters, Nora and Rachel. We learn early on that Nora lives in London, while her older sister is a nurse outside of Oxford. As the book opens, Nora has taken the train to visit Rachel just as she has done countless other times. However, when she arrives at the house, all is not as it should be. Nora discovers her sister violently murdered, and suddenly her entire world seems cast adrift.
Nora remains in town and in frequent contact with the officers investigating the crime. Since the book is told from her perspective in the first person, readers get an almost claustrophobic view of the crime and its investigation. The few known details of the crime pop up again and again, and in what is one of my favorite parts of this book, we as readers must examine and reexamine a limited universe of facts we think that we know – and see them with fresh eyes as pieces of the puzzle start to fit together in new ways.
As a narrator, Nora is hard to pin down. She’s obviously distressed over the killing of Rachel and it’s equally apparent that this murder has reopened memories from the past that she seems to have considered long buried and put behind her. And so the mystery begins. There are hints of “Nora might not be a reliable narrator” here and “Rachel was keeping some secrets” there, and as the story weaves along, it’s hard to tell at first just how much past history might be tied to the present. There might be a connection between shocking events from Rachel and Nora’s teenage years, or it may just be that those events were so important mainly because they affect how Nora is able to interpret what she sees around her in the present.
Berry weaves a lot of threads together into what ends up being a fast-moving and compact little book. Much of it works, but sometimes all those little hints of what might be going on serve to make the narrative feel a little bit disjointed and at the end, a tad abrupt.
And then there’s our narrator. One can definitely pick up on Nora’s anguish and fear throughout the book. However, it’s difficult to get to know her otherwise. Even spending as much time in her head as readers do, she remains stubbornly elusive. And by the later chapters of the novel, that inability to figure her out feels more frustrating than mysterious.
Even so, I enjoyed this story far more than I didn’t. Berry creates a fantastic, if dark, atmosphere in this book and the puzzling mystery at the story’s center kept me flying through pages.