Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House Canada in exchange for an honest review.
It’s the end of the war and a bunch of children find a series of tunnels near their houses. They call them qanats and decide that they’d be a great place to play and hang out. They agree not to tell any adults about them. A few weeks later, one of their dads finds them playing in the tunnels and yells at them to get out and not come back.
None of them go back.
Sixty years later, those tunnels are having houses built on them and a cookie tin is discovered. Inside the tin there’s a pair of severed hands: one male, one female. The police half-heartedly attempt to discover the story behind the hands and bring the group of children, now all in their seventies, back together.
I thought Ruth Rendell’s The Girl Next Door was going to be a straight forward murder mystery situation. But we know from the beginning what the deal is with the hands and who was responsible, so there’s no mystery. It’s much more a story about the relationships people have, what they think to be true, how small things can have a big ripple effect. Once I wrapped my head around that, it was an enjoyable read.
Normally when one reads about shattered lives or relationship upheaval, the characters are middle aged. This time, the characters were at the end of their lives, spending a lot of time kind of wishing for it all to be over, reflecting on the lives that they had led, saying good bye to friends. I found that I really liked this aspect, that it made for a more layered read.
There are a lot of characters in this book and sometimes it’s really hard to keep them all straight. Some of them dated when they were younger but married another of the group later, others had multiple marriages and there are several middle aged children and then grandchildren to keep track of, even a couple of great grandchildren. All of that was a little confusing to begin with, some flipping back to see who we were talking about now.
Lewis wants to know what happened to his uncle, who just suddenly disappeared near the end of the war one day; Michael wants to know what happened to his mother. Alan and Rosemary, married for over 50 years, suddenly separate when Alan is reunited with his first love, Daphne, thanks to the investigation into the hands. Alan thinks that his life has been boring up to now and would have been better had he gone after Daphne all those years ago. Rosemary thinks that their lives, including their children Judith and Owen, grandchildren and even great grandchildren, has been wonderful and is devastated when he leaves.
I was curious about Lewis’s uncle but we knew about Michael’s mom. For me, the most interesting part of the story was Rosemary and Alan. How Alan, after all these years, could just walk away from Rosemary and his life to be with Daphne. In the beginning Rosemary grated on my nerves (so maybe it wasn’t so hard to see why Alan would leave) but in the end, she was the most interesting character.
Once you can get past the fact that this isn’t going to be the mystery you thought it might be, and you can keep the characters straight, this is a great character study of what it’s like to get older, with most of your life behind you, that maybe chances are still worth taking.
Plus it’s a quick read so if you need to pad your reading stats, this is a good one to pick up.