Desert Isle Keeper
The Family Upstairs
Sinister, seductive, and scary, Lisa Jewell’s The Family Upstairs is a masterpiece of the domestic thriller genre you won’t want to put down once you’ve started. You’ll forever be leery of having house guests once you’ve finished.
The arrangement was meant to be temporary. When Justin and Birdie move into Henry’s parent’s home, it’s supposed to be for just a few days, while her band films a music video there. But then the couple don’t leave, even after the shoot is finished. Instead, they bring friends, the friend’s children, a cat. Henry quickly realizes that his mum’s ‘guests’ are never leaving. As he tells us at the start of the tale, “They lived with us for more than five years and they turned everything very, very dark.”
Twenty-five years later, Libby Jones receives a letter from a solicitor advising her of the identity of her birth parents and apprising her of the fact that she is the sole inheritor of their posh home in Chelsea. She also learns that when she was a baby, she had been found in that home by the police, alone except for three dead bodies. The corpses had all been dressed in black homespun, apparent members of a cult which had ended with a suicide pact.
But her dead parents and the mysterious man lying deceased beside them were not the only members of that cult. The others have been waiting for Libby to turn twenty-five, to inherit the house and finally come back to Chelsea. They are all so anxious to meet her. . .
AAR reviewers Maggie and Shannon read The Family Upstairs and are here to share their thoughts on the novel.
Maggie: You and I both gave Then She Was Gone, one of Jewell’s 2018 releases, DIK status. I know we’re both big fans. I love her layered, subtle thrillers which slowly ratchet up the suspense until you’re desperate to get to the end. And those last pages always blow me away, they inevitably contain a twist I never saw coming. What draws you to her work?
Shannon: I love the originality of her stories. She can take themes I’ve read hundreds of times before and make them feel completely fresh and new. Plus, her twists always make so much sense after the fact. They totally blow my mind as I’m reading, but then, when I reflect back on the story as a whole, I’m able to see how much sense they make. That’s something I don’t always experience when I’m reading thrillers, so it makes her work stand out for me.
Maggie: This story is done in a dual timeline format, with Libby and a mysterious woman named Lucy as the narrators for the present day portion and Henry the narrator for the historical aspect of the tale. I felt that configuration worked perfectly, with Libby and Lucy’s sections having a much more straightforward mystery feel to them and Henry’s being atmospheric and gothic and chilling. I think the way they told their stories suited each of them. How about you?
Shannon: The dual timeline format works perfectly for this story. Henry’s portions of it were the most disturbing to me, while the sections set in the present were intriguing in a different way. Needless to say, I was glued to my iPad once I started reading.
Maggie: I agree, the story was riveting; once started it’s almost impossible to put down. In any gothic story, the house is as much a character in the book as the people. I know you love creepy old houses and this book had one heck of a macabre manse. I wouldn’t have wanted to set foot in it from the start, given what we heard of the decor, but towards the end, after everything that happened? The house felt essentially malignant and dangerous to me. What were your thoughts about it?
Shannon: I loved that the author could make the house such a central part of the story without veering off into supernatural territory. It’s not that I dislike supernatural books, but I tend to shy away from thrillers that go down that route. The Family Upstairs was wonderfully atmospheric in all the best ways, and that spooky house plays a big part in its perfection.
Maggie: I’ve mentioned that our three narrators are Lucy, Libby and Henry. I liked all three of them at the start, although one surprised me in the last chapters of the book. Still, I found myself feeling simultaneously horrified by, frightened by and oddly sympathetic towards that person. How did you feel about our narrators?
Shannon: Lucy was my least favorite. Her story was compelling, but she was someone I had a difficult time connecting with. The other two made up for that though, even when they made decisions I couldn’t completely understand.
Maggie: Lucy was, I felt, the least fleshed-out of the three so I can understand why you didn’t connect with her. This is the second book we’ve both read this year – the first being Ruth Ware’s The Turn of the Key – with children whose parents’ negligence placed them in bad situations. I found that along with Birdie, the person I despised most was Martina, the mom who made that hellish home possible. What did you think of Martina and Birdie?
Shannon: Both women made some horrible choices that put all the children in horrible danger. I can’t imagine growing up in their care. I wanted one of them, mostly Martina, to stand up for the kids and actually do something to save them from the mess their lives had become. Obviously, that couldn’t have happened in the story Ms. Jewell created, but I still wanted it to occur.
Maggie: Me, too. I felt somebody should have done something and was disgusted that nobody did. Moving on: If the book had any weakness it was that the perverse leader of their cult was basically a stock figure, exactly what you would expect such a person to be. Did you feel he was well drawn, or would you agree he was a predictable sort of villain?
Shannon: I actually thought David was a pretty great villain, if such a thing exists. I would have liked to learn a bit more about his back story, but the glimpses we did get into his past misdeeds were super creepy.
Maggie: I guess I’ve read so many books with evil cult leaders that I found him predictable. I was engrossed in this book and couldn’t put it down once I’d started. It was a near perfect read for me and that shocking twist of an ending was breathtaking. I’m giving it an A. How about you?
Shannon: It gets an A- from me. It would have been utterly perfect if I could have connected more with Lucy. It’s definitely another great piece of creepy fiction from Lisa Jewell, cementing her place on my list of favorite thriller writers.