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Saturday, 21 December 2013
‘Tarnished’ by Julia Crouch
During the first few, very short chapters, I wasn’t at all sure I was going to enjoy Tarnished. In the early stages the premise seemed hackneyed: a protagonist desperate to know more about a childhood of which she has only sparse, garbled memories; when she starts to explore them, they slowly begin to make sense and form an unexpected picture which makes her doubt the wisdom of doing so. What was more, the characters seemed a little dull: doting grandmother with incipient Alzheimer’s, bedridden aunt, missing father and the girl who moved away to embark on a drab career shelving books in a library.
But I underestimated Julia Crouch; it creeps up on you and eventually holds you enthralled. First of all, despite that unpromising start, I realized she had held my attention well past the 50-page mark: always the first test. Then, as she added layers to the characters, they began to vary between merely interesting and positively grotesque. The grandmother is obsessively incapable of throwing anything away – even used incontinence pads. The bedridden aunt, whose disability is frequently mentioned but never explained in detail, is so greedy and grossly obese that she needs a double-sized wheelchair on the one occasion she leaves the house. The seedy father lives on the Costa del Crime following a shady Soho past, and has a wife straight out of the Ageing Stripper catalogue from Central Casting. And protagonist Peg, the memory-exploring library assistant, turns out to be six feet one, vegetarian and a happily partnered lesbian despite a stifling upbringing which would have shoehorned a weaker personality into a far more conventional mould. Even minor players like a nightclub cleaner and an elderly ex-squaddie become slightly larger than life.
The main setting of the novel, the Kent coast around Whitstable, is almost a character in itself: the mud, the shingle, the treacherous tides, form a monochrome background which counterpoints the ever more colourful bits of Peg’s past which keep surfacing as she prods and digs at the half-memories.
Towards the end I had begun to twig, as Peg had, that the clues weren’t quite pointing in the direction they appeared to – but that detracted not at all from the shock of the big reveal when it finally came.
Tarnished is the kind of novel that leaves you feeling slightly uncomfortable. Who knows what really goes on behind the net curtains of a respectable bungalow? And are we better off not knowing? Think grubbier version of Sophie Hannah, with a touch of Martina Cole as seasoning.
Reviewer: Lynne Patrick
Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years, and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives on the edge of rural Derbyshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.