under your skin

Endings can be incredibly powerful.

An unexpected ending can completely change our perspective on what has gone before, and I have persevered with several very dull or irritating books in the hope that their endings would somehow redeem their middles. (This is doubtless because I remember finding Louis de Bernieres’ ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’ a real drag at A level, until I reached the ending and decided that it had made all the preceding bumpf worth reading…sadly, no ending since then has ever been so successful in reclassifying boredom as patience.)

The conclusion of Sabine Durrant’s psychological thriller ‘under your skin’ did change my perspective, but, sadly, not in a way I liked.

What’s it about?

Daytime TV personality Gaby Mortimer discovers a woman’s body while running on the common near her home. She immediately reports it to the police…who quickly target her as their only suspect. Appalled and horrified by her arrest and overnight incarceration, Gaby descends into a world of paranoia and tension as she tries to persuade DI Perivale to look elsewhere for suspects. The victim is a Polish nanny; could Gaby’s new Polish nanny be involved somehow? Circumstantial evidence appears to be link Gaby to the crime, but it could equally well apply to her increasingly distant husband, Philip. And then there’s Gaby’s stalker…

That’s the plot, but really this novel is about a life teetering on the brink: outwardly sucessful, respected and someone who ‘has it all’, it quickly becomes clear that, actually, Gaby has startlingly little of value: few close friends, a dwindling career (how dare a nearly 40 year old show her face on daytime TV? Better replace her with a younger model, sharpish,) and a disintegrating marriage. Really, this novel examines the fears simmering underneath middle-class suburban life and how they can affect women. (Hint: badly.)

What’s it like?

Instantly intriguing. Gaby is anxious from page 1 as she notes that:

‘You are never alone in London, even in the dead of night, even in the bone-cold chill of a pre-dawn March morning. There is always the possibility of someone watching, following, seeing what you’re up to. I’m not sure I like it.’

“There is always the possibility of someone watching, following, seeing what you’re up to.”

Being a first person narrator allows Gaby to draw us in; it’s impossible not to cringe with her when she gets ‘social stuff’ wrong – expecting someone to smile when they don’t, flirting slightly when it’s hideously inappropriate. It appears that the tensions in her life are causing her to unravel (since surely she didn’t become a TV personality without previously possessing better interpersonal skills?) She is so aware of her flaws that we want her to forgive herself:

‘My breath is ragged. I can feel it, hot, in my chest. It’s all wrong; I’m not doing it right. I’m hopeless; I’m a person who can’t even run properly’.

And yet, it would be so easy not to like her. She’s privileged, employs a nanny and a cleaner (and has no idea where the latter lives), and is ferried to and from her rather vacuous work each morning. Durrant’s skills lie in manipulating our response: she’s a bit arrogant, perhaps, but also obviously vulnerable and being set up for murder by someone. Perhaps the most chilling moment in the whole book is when DI Perivale coolly informs her that as long as there’s opportunity and evidence, no one gives a damn about motive. Look how easy it would be to have your entire, comfortable middle class existence destroyed, Durrant whispers to us.

What’s not to like?

And then…and then there’s the ending. Obviously, there needs to be a big reveal; it’s a crime thriller. And in retrospect, if you flick back through the previous pages, (which I did, muttering “what? WHAT?”) the supporting evidence for the denouement exists, but there’s no getting away from my ultimate dissatisfaction with the ending. To explain why would be to reveal too much, but I have a genuine complaint, I assure you!

Oh and if I was being picky, I would mention how strange it seems that the police never show any interest in any other suspects. Ever.

Final thoughts

I’m loathe to write this off before I really enjoyed reading it. Durrant writes well, incorporating some lovely turns of phrase. She creates tension effectively and made me really care about the characters, but, oh, that ending…

It’s a very good psychological thriller, and very cleverly done, but be prepared to want to tear out the last 10 pages. Seriously.

‘under your skin’
Sabine Durrant
Mulholland books, 2013, paperback