Desert Isle Keeper
There can be no doubt that Lisa Jewell is one of the brightest gems of the current thriller market. Her latest release, Watching You, continues her tradition of writing chilling, engrossing reads that will keep you up late into the night.
Joey Mullen has just arrived back in England with a new husband in tow. This was meant to be her moment, that pivotal time when she went from young woman to fully functional adult, but it hasn’t turned out that way. Instead, she’s living in a room in her brother’s house, working a cruddy job at a child’s play center, and her only confidante is her dead mother, whose grave she visits on a regular basis. As if all that wasn’t bad enough, she – a newlywed- has developed an obsessive crush on her married neighbor, Tom Fitzwilliam.
Tom Fitzwilliam is a national superman – a headmaster who is called in to fix failing schools and who always, always succeeds in doing just that. Having been all over the country with his wife and young son in tow, he is now living in the posh neighborhood of Melville Heights. It’s a quiet kind of place, occupied by doctors and lawyers and old-money academics. But something began stirring when Tom moved into the area and people who used to smile at each other in the streets are now watching their neighbors with guarded eyes, suspicious of all they see. All they see except for Tom, that is. Tom is universally loved by all.
Well, almost all. Jenna Tripp, a student from his school who lives in Tom’s neighborhood, sees things about him she doesn’t like. Things like Tom’s interest in her clearly underage best friend Bess. And then there’s Tom’s son, Freddy, who sees the odd happenings in his parent’s marriage and is reaching the age where he is beginning to understand that something very, very strange is going on in their home. He isn’t sure what it is but the pieces he’s put together involve an odd encounter on a long-ago vacation and a young girl who knew his dad many years ago when he was an English teacher.
Told in alternating points of view, this layered, twisty mystery is a dark look at obsession, violent personalities and how the past always catches up with us. It offers intriguing insights on sisters, besties and how we rarely know people half as well as we think we do.
The plot is simple: someone has been murdered in their kitchen. The solution is not simple – we don’t know who or by whom or why or even which kitchen. The author excels at giving us possible motives, numerous potential victims, and providing a plethora of suspects. With the exception of Joey and Jenna, the characters here are all onions. The author reveals who they are layer by layer, so that each new revelation slowly changes our impression of them. All our star players have a reason for distrusting each other, each of them has a motive for eliminating at least one other player. Each of them carries a secret and has strong reasons to keep that secret private. While Joey and Jenna remain constant, unchanging narrators, their consistency is molded by their private demons. They, too, have things to keep hidden. The only question is, how far will they go to maintain their privacy?
At the heart of the novel is the truth of how often people live side by side, day to day without seeing what’s right in front of them. Towards the end of the book, Tom tell his son Freddie, “I’ve been watching you. All along. Watching everything you do.” But the reader knows that Tom’s gaze has been useless, because right under his nose Freddie has been up to a great deal of mischief. Jenna’s mom has been watching the neighbors, convinced they are all in a conspiracy against her – and yet all the pictures she takes point to a killer she never suspected. Joey has been watching Tom, watching his house for just a glimpse of her obsession – but she never catches on to the secret that connects his home to hers. Jenna has been reduced to stalking her best friend, using every avenue available to learn what Bess is trying to hide – but the secret has always been in plain sight. All that watching, stalking, listening in – and no one sees or hears the truth.
Because of the layering, the book starts out a tad slowly. It’s like opening a brown box; the package appears, at first glance, a bit dull-looking, with perhaps some stains – in this case characters – you don’t really like. The next layer is bubble wrap – opaque, slippery with a tendency to pop when you least expect it. You’re intrigued now, wondering what lies beneath the wrap. What comes next is a box wrapped in shiny paper. By this point, you’re reading as fast as you can, anxious to see what is beneath the glittery facade. You cut the bow, tear through the wrapping and there, in the last chapters of the book, you are blinded by truths you never saw coming. That’s why I’ve avoided talking much about the details of the plots or characters; this is a mystery in the purest sense of the word. Nothing is quite sure till you’ve read the whole thing.
That is awesome for those who stick with it, but it does take a bit to work your way to the point where you’re invested. The beginning can seem a tad mundane. That’s a trademark of this author – turning the ordinary into something bizarre, uncanny, mind-blowing and yet believable. It’s an amazing skill and she uses it to good purpose here.
That said, after I put the book down and thought my way through my shock and awe, I realized a small problem I had with the plot. I struggled to accept that our instigating perpetrator had the charisma to pull off the crime they did. The viewpoint we receive of this person doesn’t point to someone capable of leading anyone astray as they are purported to have done. The character is kept deliberately ambiguous – they appear in the text a lot, but you never really know them – so this isn’t a glaring discrepancy, but I found it and the slow start to be tiny pinpricks in an otherwise near perfect canvas.
Quibbles aside, I would strongly recommend Watching You to anyone who enjoys thrillers or mysteries. This book does an outstanding job of combining the best elements of the genre into something intense, emotional and deliciously shocking.