Haven't They Grown by Sophie Hannah

Published by Hodder & Stoughton

Making the mistake of starting a brand new book directly after finishing another one late at night, can cost you dearly. If you’re unlucky it can grip you from the start, enchant you, urge you to turn just one more page, just another chapter, just until the end of Part I. In the morning you’ll be groggy, slow to become alert, irritable thanks to the lack of sleep, but above all you’ll be craving the next instalment of the story, a fix you’ll likely be unable to satisfy when pesky old work and responsibilities get in the way.

I made this mistake with Haven’t They Grown (my loved ones and co-workers can probably attest to my grumpy morning attitude from a week or so ago). It gets going right from the start; Beth lost touch with her best friend Flora twelve years previously, but her son’s football match takes them close to where her former friend lives, so a sneaky detour before the game kicks off is added to the itinerary.

After staking out the house for a few curious minutes, enrapt in memories and nostalgia, she almost fails to notice the electronic gate opening and a 4×4 indicating to enter. When the vehicle parks, out pops her friend, looking stressed and harried on the phone while she beckons two young children from the back seats. Beth gasps when she gets a good look at the children; they look exactly the same as her friends’ kids did all those years before, and are referred to by their names. What on earth can be going on?

Gripped by suspicion, fear and the feeling that something very wrong is going on, she and her son return home to her husband and teenage daughter to begin her sleuthing. What is revealed isn’t supernatural or embedded in science fiction, rather an elaborately plotted story about spousal control, relationship breakdowns and the strain obsession can put on what seems like a solid marriage.

It’s a very tight plot, with very little getting in the way of it. Even a brief detour from the main storyline loops elegantly back to it, and the reminiscences about the years previous are entwined effortlessly in, without the need for obvious flashbacks. It’s also a tightknit cast of characters; apart from the two families at the centre of the story there are only a handful of supporting characters, so everything is contained very neatly into the mystery.

Author Sophie Hannah has written continued Poirot stories with the blessing of the Agatha Christie estate as well as carving a successful career as a thriller writer. She is a master of plotting and character development, and each of the characters here are entirely believable. Sure, it relies on circumstances and some far-fetched plot developments, but doesn’t every good twisty thriller? What grounds it is its well-realised characters and Hannah’s ability to ramp up the considerable tension.

As the plot thickens so too does the sense of urgency. Although there doesn’t initially seem like there’ll be a race against time one soon becomes evident. Beth follows her nose to Flora’s parents, a nice older couple who seem to be as in the dark as she is regarding the goings on in Flora’s life for the past decade or so. In fact, they throw further shadows on the truth by a startling revelation that changes everything again. An impulsive visit to the children’s school complicates matters further; it really isn’t until the very last minute that all is electrifyingly, and heartbreakingly revealed.

What begins as an almost light-hearted jaunt twists and turns into quite a stark reflection on friendship, love and loss. In a variation on the theme of nothing being as it seems, and no one knowing what really goes on behind closed doors, Haven’t They Grown disguises a serious look at domestic abuse with a fast paced, witty thriller. While the ending may not live up to the initial premise, and a few too many coincidences and back-tracks towards the end became a little frustrating, Sophie Hannah’s latest is an excellent read. Along with compulsively turning the pages to find out what happens next, it will leave you thinking about picking up the phone to call that one friend that got away.

First published in The Tuam Herald on 18.03.20

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