I reviewed Annemarie Neary’s novel Siren last year and enjoyed the clever plotting and sharp writing very much. Her new novel The Orphans lives up to that initial promise and delivers a thoughtful, subtle thriller that explores childhood trauma and how the ghosts of our past can define who we become.
The book opens in Goa in 1992, where Sophie and William are living with their two young children Jess and Sparrow (Ro for short). They are living the hippy dream, but that dream soon becomes a nightmare when the couple disappear from the beach in plain sight while their children play by the water’s edge. William’s body is discovered, but Sophie has vanished, leaving these two children orphaned in a strange country. Pursued by the tabloids and eventually taken in by friends and relatives, Jess is left as the protector of her younger brother at just the age of eight.
What follows is both a thriller in the sense that there is a need to uncover what actually happened on the beach that day, and an exploration of what happens to children who face grief at such a young age.
Now grown-up and living in London, Jess has overcome her childhood adversity by attempting to create the perfect life. Married with a baby daughter she is a successful lawyer, living in a beautiful house overlooking the common. There are cracks in the façade though, including issues at work, a crippling mortgage and questions over her husband’s fidelity.
However, Jess has such a need for control and security, that she turns a blind eye to her problems and tries to convince herself and everyone around her that her life is perfect.
Ro has taken a much different path, spending the intervening decades travelling the world searching for clues as to the whereabouts of his mother. When a passport turns up in Ireland, Ro follows the trail to his mother’s old friend Mags, who suggests that his mother is still close to Jess. This news is the spark that lights the touch paper and Ro’s ensuing actions have a devastating effect on all involved.
Like Siren, The Orphans explores the psychological fall out of events of the past and the choices that are made in the light of what has gone before. Where Jess seeks control, Ro embraces chaos. Jess likes rules and boundaries, in her life and in her work, while Ro is always clutching for the impossible. None of these approaches is bringing either sibling happiness, and Neary deftly explores the lasting pain of childhood abandonment and how it is difficult to escape.
The book is also strong on exploding the myth of the hippy lifestyle to show the darker side of trying to live a simpler life. As Jess and Ro explore their parents’ lives, they discover not the idyll they remember, but lives marred by drugs, infidelity and uncertainty.
As with Neary’s previous novel, The Orphans is well plotted, going back and forth from Jess to Ro’s point of view, teasing out the truth little by little and trusting the reader to fill in the blanks. A sub-plot about a harassing work colleague adds to a sense of tension and unease, but sometimes distracts from the main story.
The ending is not as explosive or unexpected as some readers may hope for, but eventually the resolution to the crime that was committed becomes less important than the pervading sympathy for the children at the heart of that crime. In Jess and Ro, Neary has created two fascinating characters and it is to her credit that the reader’s sympathy stays with them to the unforced and affecting conclusion.
The Orphans is a different kind of thriller, subtle and compelling with an emphasis on strong characterisation and a great sense of place. From the sunlit beaches of Goa to a dank common in London, this is an atmospheric and gripping read.
I received a review copy of this book from the publisher in return for an honest review.