Published: 15th June 2017
Genre: Domestic Thriller
Trigger warnings: Suicide, sexual references, voyeurism, microaggressions, animal death
The text message arrives in the small hours of the morning: I need you.
Isa drops everything, takes her baby daughter and heads straight to Salten. She spent the most significant days of her life at boarding school on the marshes there, days which still cast their shadow over her.
Isa and her three best friends used to play the Lying Game, competing to convince people of outrageous stories. Now, after seventeen years of hiding the truth, something terrible has been found on the beach. The friends’ darkest secret is about to come to light…
By definition a thriller should not be in the least bit boring, but this book achieves that dubious honour and then some. In spite of an impressively atmospheric setting and some interesting ideas, there was little to excite as it languished beneath the weight of uninspiring characters and a terribly convoluted plot that felt much too long and unnecessarily drawn out.
It was sometimes difficult to find the motivation to read on as sections of the story passed by with no incident and when the mystery did eventually take centre stage, it contained very few surprises. As much as the author tried to raise the stakes and reinforce the titular concept, there was nothing that could rescue it from its underwhelming state.
Isa Wilde met her three closest friends at Salten boarding school. Along with Fatima, Kate, and Thea, she would often take part in the Lying Game, an activity where they would tell others outrageous falsehoods and try to convince them that they were true. The four would eventually be expelled, at the same time their art lecturer and Kate’s father Ambrose took his own life.
The circumstances surrounding his death are still unclear, but rumours persist that Ambrose painted inappropriate pictures of the four teenage girls, something which all of them deny. In the years since, Isa has not seen any of them, but suddenly she and the others receive an urgent text message from Kate asking them to come at once.
Isa arrives with her baby daughter Freya and finds Kate vulnerable and evasive, still living in the same ramshackle home. She is receiving threatening messages and human remains have been found close by, while her vengeful half-brother Luc has recently returned to the town. All of these things lead Isa and her friends to fear that their biggest secret is about to come back to haunt them.
It is a plot that could have turned out to be very compelling, but instead the execution was all wrong and any intrigue it may have provided was sucked out of it by the desperately pedestrian mode of storytelling. In the first 250 pages hardly anything exciting happens and it was all just so long-winded – that section could and should have been a lot shorter.
The second half of the book is marginally better, but the twists are extremely predictable and by that stage I just felt indifferent to the whole thing. As for the Lying Game itself, it made for a fun and innovative concept at first but ultimately it would carry little relevance towards the plot, and the fact the four women would repeatedly go against its rules later on meant that it had much less of an effect.
Everything is told in the first person from Isa’s point of view. As a narrator she is unremarkable and does not display much of a personality; indeed it is only the presence of Freya which makes her stand out. For that reason it was hard to form a definitive opinion of her, but she did at times make some rather strange decisions which was frustrating.
Luckily the other three main characters were more memorable, but that does not mean to say I liked them all. Kate was complex and throughout the story seemed to be hiding something, while Fatima was the most thoughtful and level-headed. The one I really could not stand was Thea, who was self-destructive and often insensitive towards others.
A major problem was that two of the more important characters in the book were badly under-developed. The plot mostly revolves around what happened to Ambrose and his name comes up frequently, but even in the flashbacks we rarely get to see who he actually was. As for Luc, he was clearly troubled and had a key role in events, but he also turned out to be somewhat two-dimensional.
The setting was probably the highlight, with its wild coastal atmosphere and oppressive weather conditions. It felt dark and there always seemed to be the threat of imminent danger, especially in the Salten Mill where Kate lives; a house with such basic facilities. The town as a whole came across as unwelcoming and in another story it might have worked really well.
Moving along at a slow pace, the writing does not conjure any real sense of mystery and the structure just felt wrong, as though certain parts of the story were told in the wrong order. The ending was nothing out of the ordinary – it was dramatic to a degree but not much of it was particularly difficult to see coming.
Overall, this is a dull and cumbersome story which rarely moves out of first gear and certainly does not deserve to be labelled as a thriller. The setting and the atmosphere it created may have provided some suspense here and there, but the mystery fails to ignite and the characters are nothing special, so it has to go down as a disappointing read.
This was the third book I have read by Ruth Ware and it continued the rather checkered relationship I have with her storytelling. The ideas and intentions are good, but the end product is occasionally lacking. So far, this is emphatically the worst offender in that regard.
My rating: ⭐⭐