Danger, doom and suspense abound in The Beach House which is just what you’d expect from a psychological thriller. What might come as a surprise however is that it’s also witty, mainly at the expense of an ultra health-conscious, progressive liberal-minded beach resort on America’s western seaboard.
Beverley Jones’ fictional town of Lookout Beach in Oregon isn’t as as hip as its Californian cousins but it’s still a highly desirable and exclusive place to live. Particularly if you buy into its enthusiasm for a certain way of life, the one that has all but banned smoking and considers:
… single use water bottles are akin to satanism and meat is not just murder but the weapon of our own human genocide.
Amid the inhabitants of the stylish neutral-toned dwellings strung out along the shoreline, are architects Grace and Elias Jenson and their eight-year-old daughter Tilly. The Jensons are something of a golden couple in Lookout Beach, a couple whose talents have marked them out as people who are “going places.” They’re popular but also well respected because they apply a strong environmental ethos to their design and construction projects.
As a well groomed career woman in her early thirties, Grace fits right into this beachfront community. But she’s not exactly the model resident her friends and neighbours think she is. The person she presents to the world is a fake, a work of “performance art” that has taken years to construct. Even her name is false.
Haunted by the past
Grace’s deepest fear is that one day her true identity will be discovered. That day comes when she finds her neighbour’s body lying in a pool of blood on her kitchen floor. The killer left two strange calling cards on the worktop — a red ribbon and an old pair of handcuffs. Only Grace understands their significance — they belong to her past in Wales and an incident which happened one night in her teens.
The nature of that incident and the ensuing scandal is merely hinted at in the early part of the book but is more fully revealed through Grace’s recollections of that night seventeen years ago which layer more and more details onto the narrative. I thought this worked so well in ramping up the tension and was a far more interesting approach than the dual time frame structure that’s become so popular in recent years.
In essence Beverely Jones gives us two strands of suspense each offering its own twists and turns.
One strand deals with the killing in Oregon and whether Grace’s suspicions that she is being stalked by someone from her past, are well founded. We have only her interpretation of events at Lookout Beach and we get to learn that as a child she had a reputation as a storyteller. Her behaviour when the dead man is discovered is so strange that I came to question her reliability as a narrator.
The second strand takes us right across the Atlantic to the picturesque village of Gwyn Mawr in South Wales and to a group of friends united by their love of canoeing and their fascination with the legend of the murderous innkeeper Cap Goch.
Grace’s recollections of her childhood are a mix of nostalgia for carefree days spent in the dunes and with the Surf Club in the estuary near her home. But those memories are shot through with all the uncertainties, jealousies and longings of early adolescence; emotions which come to a head one Halloween night. The ensuing tragedy is one that she could escape only by fleeing to the edge of the world to “the Pacific Northwest shore, the far-flung edge of the New World, where America gives up, folds down on itself and falls into the sea.“
Beverley Jones handles both coastal settings with great effect, particularly showing how the images they present to the world hide the reality. Gwyn Mawr is outwardly picture perfect, the ideal place in which to raise children.
sticky, chocolate-box charming village of flower-choked stone and giddy, tiled roofs pitching towards the sea
But danger lurks at the estuary mouth where rip tides can sweep even the strongest swimmer out to sea.
Lookout Beach is just as much of an artificial construct. The artists and corporate suits who moved here in search of a less frantic life away from the city, have pushed out all the real locals and let the village become a pastiche, all ” kitsch, arts and crafts, English-village-through-the-lens-of-folk American aesthetic.” It’s peaceful calm air is only part of the story for beneath the the granite cliffs that hug the bay the ocean heaves and surges, sucking the unwary kayaker into its depths.
The Beach House is a dark and engrossing tale about past mistakes and consequences, of things we try to hide from others but cannot hide from ourselves. It builds to a dramatic and thrilling denouement but cleverly leaves open a question of an individual’s moral responsibility and culpability for their actions. It’s a mark of a good novel that I’m still pondering that question days after reading the last page.
The Beach House by Beverly Jones: Footnotes
Beverley Jones is a former journalist and police press officer. She was born in a small village in the valleys of South Wales and worked as a print journalist with Trinity Mirror newspapers, before becoming a broadcast journalist with BBC Wales Today.
She also worked as a press officer and media manager for South Wales Police, participating in criminal investigations, security operations, counter terrorism and emergency planning. She channels these experiences into her writing.
The Beach House is published by Constable, part of the Little, Brown book group. It is available as an ebook and in paperback. You’ll have a chance to win a copy of the book in a giveaway — details to follow later this week.
Don’t forget to read the reviews written by other bloggers from Wales as part of the book blog tour for The Beach House.