On the surface, Alison seems to have the perfect life: a successful career as a London barrister; a beloved daughter; and a kind, low-key husband who doesn’t mind picking up the slack. But scratch this veneer of prosperity and a very different picture emerges. Alison drinks too much. The pressures of work mean that she simply can’t be present in her daughter’s life. She’s let down her husband Carl one too many times and their marriage is on the brink of collapse. Oh, and she’s having a disastrous, humiliating affair with her solicitor Patrick. When Alison lands her first murder case, she believes that this vindicates her obsessive focus on work at the expense of her family – but her joy is short-lived. Someone begins sending her threatening text messages. Someone knows what she’s been doing. And someone is closing in on her.
The texts start arriving. They’re needling, anonymous, taunting. Someone knows about Alison’s affair with Patrick and is threatening to make it public. Her reputation stands on the line, but how can she retaliate when she has no idea who’s watching? And how can she give up Patrick when the time she spends at home, playing at happy families, just reminds her how hopeless she is as a wife and a mother? It feels as though everything Alison has done, or failed to do, for the past few years is beginning to come together in a perfect storm, which risks destroying not only her professional life but also what little domestic harmony she has left. Her chaotic life provides a fair share of the book’s drama, but also causes some issues. As I’ve said before, I can root for a character even if I don’t like them; even if they’re downright evil, as some have been. But they have to have some kind of charisma, and the problem with Alison is that there’s no reason to warm to her. We’re told that she’s good at her job, but we aren’t ever really shown it. Instead, we’re shown her skipping work to have trysts with Patrick, or showing herself up in front of colleagues and generally clinging on with her fingernails. Alarmingly, Tyce has a background in the law and it does make you wonder whether barristers actually live in this way, in a state of protracted disintegration.
But let’s give Alison the benefit of the doubt. She makes bad life choices, no doubt about that, but I suppose she does have a certain kind of messy authenticity. My gripe with the book isn’t really about her. It’s about the ‘twist’ – and yet again I finding myself asking why writers are so desperately obsessed with loudly-trumpeted twists. Most of the book is a solid, slightly unsettling thriller, with a sideline in the dynamics of an exhausted marriage. The texts add a swelling sense of tension that must come to a head at some point; but when? It works; but then there’s the twist. This was just so absurd, off-the-wall and psychotic-for-the-sake-of-it that it made the entire book feel absolutely ridiculous. I can’t go into detail because that would very definitely count as a spoiler, but if you’ve read the book, I invite you to imagine me reading the final few chapters with one sardonic eyebrow very definitely raised. There are subtler ways of achieving a similar effect, surely? As it is, the poor reader is suddenly sent on a roller-coaster of revelation and ends up feeling quite nauseous from the whole experience.
I will admit that the thriller genre is not my natural home. I’ve read some very enjoyable thrillers, but the best – in my opinion – eschew the showy twists which seem to be increasingly de rigueur for recent novels. It’s not the twists themselves that I object to. I enjoy a well-handled twist as much as the next person – look at how much I loved Gentlemen & Players. I just resent overblown batty twists which come out of nowhere, and that was the case in Blood Orange. But that’s just my opinion. You might well be in the market for a book about a hot mess of a barrister with an unknown stalker, and you might love those eleventh-hour ‘whoa, where did that come from?’ moments. In that case, fire away. This might well be just up your street.