the sudden departure of the Frasers

I was fascinated by the premise of this book.

Why? Well, where to start? The title is intriguing enough in itself, (departure, not disappearance, a choice which highlights that they made a remarkably abrupt decision to leave, rather than being (say) spirited away by kidnappers, and ‘The Frasers’, creating a sense of unity (against who?) and almost mythology – they’re not Mr and Mrs Fraser, they are The Frasers,) but the blurb is fascinating.

What’s it about?

Christy and Joe Davenport have spent every penny they have (and a fair few they don’t) on pursuing their dream of living on Lime Park Road, but as soon as Christy holds the keys to their dream home, doubts begin to niggle.

Why was the price so low? Why was the sale so rushed? Why did the previous owners go to so much trouble to renovate the whole house in luxurious style only to move out within a year? And why won’t the neighbours speak to Christy? What is it they won’t tell her?

One year earlier popular couple Amber and Jeremy Fraser brought a sparkle to the previously quiet road when they moved into the neighbourhood. Amber was a devoted wife, a great neighbour and friend to the other residents. Except, she tells us, ‘This is a lie.’

So who was Amber Fraser really? And why did the Frasers depart so suddenly? Christy is determined to find out and as she struggles to uncover the truth, she moves closer to ‘the dark and shocking story that tore the street apart’. Oooh.

What’s it like?

Initially gripping. Typically compelling. Ultimately disturbing.

The first chapters are gripping as we meet Christy and experience her initial reservations, then meet Amber and are told that this is her ‘confession‘. We can only wonder what terrible thing she did. Back and forth we shift between wholesome Christy, being rejected by her new neighbours, and naughty Amber, being welcomed with ease.

It’s interesting that Amber is given a first person narrative, the better to seduce the reader, perhaps, while Christy is kept slightly at arm’s length by the third person narration, her gossipy dissertations on her neighbours’ doings frequently undercut by husband Joe’s disinterest and rational perspective.

And then. Then there are multiple chapters focusing on Christy’s obsession and Amber’s burgeoning secret. Given that the novel stretches to 500 pages, you’d be forgiven for wondering whether some of this could be cut. This will divide readers: some relishing the gradual slide into chaos and Candlish’s careful depiction of character, others guessing the outcome and impatiently flicking ahead a few pages.

How does it end?

Finally, the denouement arrives. And it’s…somehow slightly underwhelming. It shouldn’t be – Amber’s crime is appalling, her husband is disturbingly complicit and the outcomes are severe – but it is perhaps a little predictable, and this can be hard to swallow when we’ve been promised something ‘dark and shocking’.

Candlish’s very brief, threat-laden prologue could hint at several outcomes, but once you know her characters well, and she ensures you know them inside-out, it sets like custard and we’re waiting for nature to take its course.

That said, I loved the structure of this, the way Candlish layers the women’s stories together with dark echoes and creates a highly plausible villain alongside her villainess. Leaving the events of the crucial day til so close to the end is cleverly done; removing Christy’s narrative altogether by the end is a masterstroke. Like the residents of Lime Park Road, it’s Amber we’re fascinated by, Amber whose past, present and future we yearn to understand, not Christy’s. (Amber has her own take on Christy, which adds a deep chill to the story, though this could simply reflect Amber’s beliefs and concerns. This ambivalence about Christy and Joe’s future is another brilliant aspect of the book.)

Final thoughts

One reviewer compared Louise Candlish’s ‘The Sudden Departure of the Frasers’ to works by Liane Moriarty and Gillian Flynn. While I responded instinctually with yes – I already had ‘Gone Girl’ in mind – the comparisons also allowed me to shape my coalescing criticisms more precisely.

Unlike Moriarty’s books, (including ‘The Husband’s Secret’ and ‘What Alice Forgot’,) Candlish essentially follows one plot line here, despite having two central protagonists (or is Christy perhaps a Mrs de Winter figure, overwhelmed by Manderly and incapable of being a Rebecca?) Unlike Gillian Flynn’s novels, there is ultimately one central question we zig zag our way towards resolving, rather than finding multiple twists that scatter the story in different directions.

‘The Sudden Departure of the Frasers’ has a different way of working than those novels, a more focused approach that encompasses a way of life rather than simply a clutch of exemplary or awful characters, but with its suspenseful title and its blurb proclaiming ‘the dark and shocking secret’ it is aligning itself with these kinds of writers and potentially encouraging readers to expect a slightly different experience from what Candlish has to offer. Think ‘Rear Window’ rather than ‘Gone Girl’ and you’ll be ready to love this, especially the entertaining minor twists in Christy’s last chapter.

What Candlish does have to offer is an excellent story whose most disturbing elements will linger in your mind long after you’ve closed the final pages.

‘The Sudden Departure of the Frasers’,
Louise Candlish,
2015, Penguin Books, paperback