Book Review – That Night by Gillian McAllister

Pages: 435
Published: 10th June 2021
Genre: Psychological Thriller
Trigger warnings: Violence, sexual references, mental health sub-plot

That night everything changed.

The night Frannie committed a murder, but she didn’t mean to. That night we helped her bury the body, what else could we do?

One hot summers night in Italy, Joe and Cathy Plant receive a phone call that will change their lives forever. Their sister Frannie has killed a man, and she needs their help. They were always close, some might say too close, siblings who worked together, lived next door to each other

And now they’ve buried a body together…

But when they return to England, Frannie, Joe and Cathy become tangled in lies in they’ve been telling, to the police, to their friends, to each other. But if you can’t trust your family, who can you trust?

This is a book that presents a thought-provoking concept and contains heaps of palpable tension to go with it. With the help of dual timelines and concealed narratives, the plot revolves around a moral dilemma that gradually snowballs to the extent where the reader is feeling every shred of the characters’ paranoia, making it constantly intriguing despite its flaws.

The premise provides the basis for this story although it is the characters who truly drive it; such is the strength of their development and how their individual traits are explored. It drills right into the heart of sibling relationships and what a person would be willing to do on behalf of a loved one, creating an extremely high-stakes scenario where the burden of truth becomes simply impossible to escape.

Cathy Plant is on holiday in Italy with her younger sister Frannie, older brother Joe and his wife Lydia. While asleep one night, she receives a panicked phone call from Frannie, who is a few streets away and asks her to come quickly. When she arrives, Cathy is joined by Joe and they discover that Frannie has run over and killed a man with their hire car.

With the prospect of Frannie’s life being destroyed by what appeared a tragic accident, the three of them choose to remove all evidence of what happened by burying the victim in the ground beside their shared villa and taking all his personal effects. When he is reported missing and named as police officer William McGovern, they take drastic steps to cover the tracks and manage to avoid detection before returning to the UK.

However, the reality of having to live with the knowledge of what happened is too overwhelming and cracks start to appear in their resolve, causing them to become estranged from their family and each other. Joe wants to protect Frannie at all costs; Cathy finds it hard to keep her actions on her conscience, and they both reach the point of no return. Then months later, one of the siblings finds themselves in a lawyer’s office, about to testify in court about that fateful night.

As it focuses heavily on the impact the crime has on the characters’ day-to-day lives, the story has a relatively slow pace but remains compelling due to the extent of their cover-up and the depth of their lies. You just wonder how long they can keep it up before being found out, and also whether one or more of the siblings has something extra to hide.

It is primarily written in the third person, with most chapters told from the perspectives of Cathy and Joe, but some are told from Lydia’s viewpoint. For the future timeline it switches to the first person and the identity of the narrator is not revealed until late on – all we know is that it is not Joe, and in the end the outcome is not much of a surprise. Furthermore, the story is split into sections based on their extensive list of criminal offenses.

There are few fictional examples of adult siblings with such a close bond. Having lost their youngest sister Rose when they were children, Cathy, Joe, and Frannie share just about their entire lives with one another. They all work in the family veterinary practice, and even live next door to each other in three consecutive houses. A little unrealistic perhaps, but very quaint.

It was hard to particularly like any of them because of what they did, but Cathy was easily my favourite of the trio. She was the rational, more considered one and at least had the decency to be ashamed of their actions, becoming a increasingly unwilling participant in the whole thing. Some of her personality traits were actually quite relatable, and her story is ultimately bittersweet.

On the other hand, Joe made for a much more uncomfortable read. He suffers from anxiety which the author represents reasonably well, but his impulsive and frankly volatile nature means he is not very likeable. The way he treats Lydia is terrible and as they continue to dig a deeper hole for themselves his temperament spirals out of control, with shocking consequences.

Curiously, Frannie is given much less development than the other two, and as such we know little about what she is like as a person, or what is going on her mind. The absence of her point of view is massively conspicuous, with many of her actions after she kills William not being addressed. Instead, her role felt quite passive and that did not make a great deal of sense in the context of the book, so that was an issue.

As for the other characters, I sympathised a lot with Lydia, who has a sad backstory and gets caught right in the middle of Joe’s problems. Tony’s arrival into the story was a bit of an unlikely coincidence but he was likeable and helped add a neat little romantic sub-plot, while the Plants’ work colleague Evan was totally devious and an all-round nasty piece of work. Then in the future timeline we have Jason, a lawyer who carries a perpetual air of mystery. We do not learn much about him, and in a strange way that is what made him interesting.

The first half of the story takes place in Verona and there is a real sense of place, especially with the cultural references and mentions of Juliet balconies. Once they have buried William’s body, the whole place takes on a darker meaning for the main characters, but when they get back to the UK the tension creates a more claustrophobic atmosphere. The fact they are then so far removed from the police investigation only adds to this.

Emotive and intense, the writing of Gillian McAllister is typically emphatic and contains the same liberal amount of similes as in her previous books, although it is a little dense at times here. There were many possibilities for the way the ending could play out, and the route she chose to go down was intelligent even if there was not as much of a pay-off in the case of one or two of the characters.

Overall, where this book succeeds is in the encompassing manner that it confronts the permanently unforgiving reality of the characters’ predicament as it gradually unravels. It may be slow moving in places but most elements are developed brilliantly and the presence of the future timeline brings the extra layer of intrigue that it needed. Whether or not the execution is satisfactory, it certainly makes the reader stop and think.

It was not always the most gripping of books, but the themes are handled very impressively and whenever I picked it up, I felt like I was being thrown headlong into the characters’ problems. It was a pretty good read, all things considered.

My rating: ⭐⭐⭐.5

One thought on “Book Review – That Night by Gillian McAllister

  1. It´s weird how a murder can weight on someone. I’ve once been witnessing when a woman, out of the blue, in the middle of the street, confessed to a murder she got away with, when she was confronted with the guy who did actually prison time for that murder and was just released on probation. It’s irrational, she had nothing to gain with it, but nevertheless … Her mother came an hour later, scolding at her for her stupidity, but it was too late: the police had already recorded her confession. It’s my understanding that it is the same irrational drive that propulses the story line of this novel.

    Liked by 1 person

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