NOT THAT I COULD TELL
Jessica Strawser (jessicastrawser.com)
Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)
An intimate get-together in the back garden of a house in Yellow Springs, Ohio may seem inconspicuous – a group of friends and neighbours gathered together for drinks and gossip – but when one of the women and her twin children have disappeared the following morning, the remaining women spend time analysing every conversation that took place, trying to remember the smallest detail of Kristin’s mood looking for clues as to what might have happened. Did Kristin pack up her kids and run away, or has something more sinister happened, something that might explain the sudden appearance of Kristin’s estranged husband on the street?
While Kristin’s disappearance is the focus of the investigation at the heart of the book, her two friends and neighbours Izzy and Clara, become the focal points for the reader. Clara is happily married, though she has a dark secret in her past that forced her to move from Cincinnati to Yellow Springs. Izzy, on the other hand, is single, still devastated from the fact that the man she loved has recently married her sister, and, as a result, the perfect target for the attentions of the seemingly-innocent Paul, Kristin’s ex-husband, and the man on whom the police have set their sights for his wife’s disappearance.
Jessica Strawser presents small-town Americana in the mould of Big Little Lies or Desperate Housewives. Here are a group of women who seem, on the outside, to have everything they need for the perfect life. But each of them has at least one skeleton in their closet, and none of them know their closest neighbours as well as they think they do: allegations of Paul having abused Kristin come as a complete surprise to the others, and forces each to react to the man in different ways. In Clara’s case, she is wary and believes the worst; Izzy finds herself falling for the man’s good looks and charms, happy that she finally seems to be getting over the blow of losing Josh to her sister and convinced that the rumours of abuse are nothing more than malicious gossip.
Not That I Could Tell moves at a reasonably sedate pace, introducing us to the central characters as they attempt to come to terms with the disappearance of their friend. Has Kristin taken the children and fled an abusive household, or has Paul taken his cruelty to the next level, killing his wife and children and getting rid of the bodies? Strawser is careful not to let us find out too much as the story progresses, leaving us to form our own opinion on what might have happened to Kristin. There are a handful of short chapters sprinkled throughout the narrative that show us things from Kristin’s point of view, but they’re presented in such a way that they might be the final thoughts of a woman already dead, or the observations of a woman on the run from an abusive husband.
With a sharp focus on character, Strawser presents everyday small-town America at its worst. The women to whom we’re introduced are wonderfully-written, fleshed-out characters who positively leap from the page. While it’s a slow-paced read, there are moments of tension-filled genius that are worth the price of admission alone, not enough to consider Not That I Could Tell a “thriller” in the traditional sense, but enough to get the reader’s heart beating faster, and their attention glued firmly to the page.
An excellent novel about the relationships between women in small-town America, and their ability to keep secrets even in the most intimate of surroundings. A must-read for those who enjoyed HBO’s Big Little Lies, Not That I Could Tell is an excellent introduction to Jessica Strawser, and a nice change of pace from the usual high-tension, fast-paced psychological thrillers that are all the rage at the moment.