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Wednesday, 18 June 2014
‘The Darkening Hour’ by Penny Hancock
What is harder for a writer than producing a debut novel which dances and sparkles its way into a publisher’s consciousness, and thence on to readers’ bookshelves via a string of enthusiastic reviews? The debut is hard enough – but a lot of authors would say writing a second novel which achieves the same level of success is even more difficult. Penny Hancock’s creepy debut Tideline won a lot of plaudits. The question was, could she do it again? She not only could; she has. In The Darkening Hour she tackles totally different themes, explores a whole new set of issues via completely disparate characters, makes an important political point without seeming to preach – and if possible, held me even more firmly gripped than the first time, by the tension and creeping menace with which she imbues a middle-class household which on the surface appears quite normal.
The narrative alternates between radio presenter Theodora, juggling a demanding and insecure job, an indolent son and a geriatric father, and Mona, the woman from a desperately poor north African background whom she employs to care for her father and help in the house.
Secrets and agendas abound, and the relationship between the two women becomes increasingly fraught as Theodora’s demands multiply and Mona begins to learn her secrets and exact small, subtle forms of revenge.
First-person narration from both protagonists helps Hancock to get under their skins and inside their heads, and despite the frequent switches from one to the other there’s never a moment’s confusion about who is telling the story. Supporting and minor characters, too, have a clarity and roundedness which many novelists with a far longer track record struggle to achieve.
Hancock’s sense of place and talent for creating a living, breathing backcloth to the story plays a key role, and as in Tideline, the river Thames contributes to the rich, evocative atmosphere and has its own part to play.
As Theodora’s past is revealed and her true colours emerge, the tension level rises until an explosive climax about eighty pages from the end comes almost as a relief. But even then it’s not over. The ending of her story (though not entirely the end of this highly accomplished novel) is about as chilling as it gets. If Penny Hancock continues to produce novels of this quality, she will soon corner the market in disturbed middle-class women. On this showing, she’s already halfway there.
Reviewer: Lynne Patrick
Penny Hancock. Afterr several years in London, Penny Hancock now lives in Cambridge with her husband and three children. She is a part-time primary school teacher at a speech and language school and has traveled extensively as a language teacher. Tideline is her first novel.
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.