Exiting the comfort zone
The step-mother figure’s a handy little plot device and Leaving Things Unsaid, Karen Barratt’s first novel, makes gripping use of it. Beth’s married to Ralph – happily, it seems – and works as a teacher. She’s inherited his history and his two children, but it’s his home – where he once lived with late wife Caroline – that’s unsettled her from the moment she carried herself over its threshold.
A far cry from the London she’s used to, the 200 year-old Fens house carries its past in its bones. “Each time it was knocked about more stitches and scars were added to its dopey old face, more intestinal shenanigans took it further from any kind of average,” she says. “The cellar was plump, crammed full” – both of ancient belongings and the clustered ghosts of past inhabitants. It’s a wonderfully evoked Mrs de Winter-style situation from the off: one of ghost stories, whispers and secrecy.
As if this wasn’t enough of a spooker, Beth’s then presented with an anonymous letter through the door – “I’m sending you this for your own good,” it reads. “Your precious husband is playing around. He thinks he’s so perfect but he’s not.” She’s plagued by phantom cold-callers with no number. Her step-son’s convinced he’s seeing things at night. Ralph can’t explain the presence of a dress on a dry-cleaning bill, and Beth doesn’t mention the mystery note. The family head off on a short trip to New York, each carrying their own private fears, amid an emergency announcement no one can account for and a barrel of extra stress. It’s unsettling and oddly believable – a series of unfortunate events lined up for a sinister finale.
New York becomes as much a character as the creaking house left behind. “It ran by me, a dozen films ran by me, the imaginary city and the real one colliding. It would have been good to disappear into one of the plots, but I could only borrow the place. Where I belonged was four thousand miles away.”
Ralph seems a little too interested in an old friend with whom the family spend awkward lunches, while Beth develops a secret and then not-so-secret pash for the woman’s partner. “We crushed the straight lines and crisp bedding that some chamber-maid had put on so expertly not so long ago – perhaps the one we’d passed in the corridor – ruckling it so that there was no chance of us ever getting it to look as it should, untouched. His kisses were too rapid to be soft and I couldn’t feel them like kisses. I hadn’t realised how much of a groove Ralph and I had worn with our far more gentle and well-rehearsed love-making.” And standing above this impending mess, gathering force all the while, is the ghost of Ralph’s dead wife, sniggering. The fact of her death, Beth muses, is “my one indisputable advantage over her.”
Combining the more disturbing elements of a family unit ripped apart with the erotic potential of new beginnings, Leaving Things Unsaid is a tight, thrilling ride. Barratt creates a deep sense of unease while willing her characters onward: though whether it’s to satisfaction or entrapment is up for debate.