Simon Lelic (www.simonlelic.com)
Penguin Books (www.penguin.co.uk)
Jack and Syd have found the perfect house; well, as far as Syd is concerned anyway. Jack isn’t so sure, but he isn’t too worried: with the amount of interest in this place, it won’t be long before he and Syd have been outbid. But the owner, whom they have never met, seems to have taken a liking to them, and wants the house to go to a young couple who are just starting out. When Jack makes a gruesome discovery in the attic, he decides not to mention it to Syd, but it’s a decision that will come back to bite him. Syd, meanwhile, has befriended Elsie, a young girl who lives across the back alley, and who is suffering through the same horrors that marked Syd’s own childhood. When Elsie’s father’s body is found in the alley between the two houses, Jack and Syd are the obvious suspects. Now they need to clear their names before one, or both, of them ends up in jail.
First off: this isn’t a ghost story, OK? Let’s make that very fucking clear. The house stood alone as if shunned. Who do you think you are, Jack – Stephen King? Creepy house, creepy furnishings, a happy(ish) couple moving in all dumb and cheerful. All the elements are there. If this really were a Stephen King novel, there’d be cats turning into zombies by chapter three.
Simon Lelic’s latest novel introduces us to young Londoners Jack and Syd as they buy their first home, and begin to build their life together. Told in alternating chapters from the main characters’ points of view, it forms a journal whose sole purpose is to present a timeline of events that can be presented to the police following the gruesome discovery of a body in the alley at the back of their new home. It is obvious from the outset that however much in love they were when they bought the house, the cracks are beginning to show in their relationship as they recount their stories, sniping at one another as they pick up the threads of the story from where their partner left off.
Jack has misgivings about the house, which seem to be borne out when he finds the body of a dead cat in the attic, alongside a mysterious box, that he decides to keep from Syd, but which will play an important role in their current predicament. Syd is more keen to move in, though there are hints that we maybe shouldn’t be as trusting of her as we want to be:
Mr Jack Walsh and Ms Sydney Baker. Personally, I couldn’t think of a name much less inspiring than Sydney Baker – that was part of the reason I’d chosen it.
Long-time fans of Lelic will know that all is not as it appears, and The House doesn’t disappoint. There is a point, despite Syd’s protestations, where this novel could as easily have become a horror novel as a psychological thriller, but Lelic keeps his feet – and the plot – firmly on the ground, and provides the reader with shivers of a much less malevolent variety.
It’s a perfectly-pitched novel, and the author holds the reader in the palm of his hands throughout, manipulating us as easily as he does his characters: now we trust Jack, now Syd, now neither. The duelling first-person narratives work well to ensure that we’re never quite sure what’s around the corner, the classic unreliable narrator trick used to brilliant effect as we struggle to determine how much of either of these stories are the truth and, beyond that, how much of what has happened hasn’t made it into this neat package that we know from the outset is designed to present a story to the police. When all is finally revealed, we experience that Sixth Sense moment where subtle clues throughout the book suddenly slot into place and we wonder how we could have missed it.
The strength of Lelic’s writing is, as ever, in the characters he brings to life, not only Jack and Syd, but also the supporting cast, everyone from Mr Hirani in the local shop to Syd’s mother and Jack’s somewhat disconnected parents. It is only because we care about these characters so much that we become so invested in what’s happening to them and Simon Lelic has proven time and time again that he is second to none when it comes to this type of writing. His first novel since 2012’s The Child Who, The House is also his first with a new publisher, who seem to be taking an interesting approach with his work: The House will be published in ebook later this month, followed by paperback publication in November, a massive change from Pan Macmillan’s hardback-led approach.
His first novel in five years delivers the goods. This is Simon Lelic in fine form, proving yet again why he should be top of everyone’s must-read list of thriller writers. The House is immediately engaging, and has plenty of twists and turns – and more than a few scares – to keep the reader turning pages until well past bedtime. A very welcome return for one of Britain’s – if not the world’s – finest writers, it’s the perfect place for Lelic virgins to start before tackling the backlist, and one of the stand-out books of this year.