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Monday 10 July 2017

‘Exquisite’ by Sarah Stovell

Published by Orenda Books,
30 June 2017. 
ISBN: 978-1-910699-74-8 (PB)

Write about what you know is advice commonly offered on creative writing courses – but you don't come across much fiction with a writer as the protagonist. Mostly this isn't a bad thing; it could feel a tad repetitive and maybe even incestuous. But it's hard to know how Sarah Stovell could have constructed this dark, twisted psychological thriller without resorting to her own background as both author and creative writing tutor.

Bo Luxton is a successful novelist; Alice Dark is her student on a week-long residential course. The two discover a bond, which flourishes and deepens after the course ends, alters both women's self-image and culminates in a passionate, destructive sexual affair which threatens Bo's stable marriage and home life.

The story of their relationship is charted from both points of view, and right to the end it's hard to tell whose view is the more accurate. All the characters leap off the page, the two main players especially so; it's easy to feel in tune with whichever of Bo and Alice is in charge of the narrative, so sympathies waver from one to the other and back again. Both are supported by fundamentally good but emotionally illiterate men, and both are damaged by the past: something of a cliché, or at least a trope, in psychological drama, but here used to advantage.

The sense of place is almost tangible in both Bo's idyllic Lake District retreat, complete with misty mornings, placid lake views and ever-changing backdrops, and Alice's slightly squalid, faux-student existence in Brighton.

The emotional undertow is powerful; there is no overall gainer or loser, but a lot of potential collateral damage. There's not so much a plot, more a story arc which leads to a climax which is inevitable but could have gone in at least two directions. Who is telling the truth? Is either of them? Is all truth subjective anyway? Stovell drops in subtle pointers (including the book's title, but you'll need to read it to find out why), but even those are laden with ambiguity.

It's a one-off, and it's certainly a book you won't want to stop reading.
Reviewer: Lynne Patrick

Sarah Stovell was born in 1977 and spent most of her life in the Home Counties before a season working in a remote North Yorkshire youth hostel made her realise she was a northerner at heart. She now lives in Northumberland with her partner and two children and is a lecturer in Creative Writing at Lincoln University. Her debut psychological thriller, Exquisite, is set in the Lake District.

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.

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