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The Happy Family by Jackie Kabler: beware the stranger on your doorstep

Cover of The Happy Family a psycholoigical thriller by Jackie Kabler

I’m not a huge consumer of psychological crime novels or thrillers but I do turn to them whenever I need to give the brain a break after reading a string of powerful or immersive books. But they still have to deliver something more than just the entertainment value of thrills and suspense. A protagonist with a complex personality is a must. A strong evocation of a specific location or time period is important. Ideally I want both to be matched with an interesting issue or a theme.

I wish I could say that The Happy Family, the latest novel by jackie Kabler, ticked some of those boxes. But it didn’t.

I chose it partly on the basis of recommendations from friends who have read her earlier novels and because it tackles the issue of gaslighting. It proved a frustrating read.

The Happy Family focuses on Beth Holland. a mother of two who has overcome heartache in her life. Her mother Alice disappeared when she was 10 years old, then her husband announced he was leaving the family home to set up with a beautiful and attractive barrister.

But that’s all in the past. Life is looking up for Beth. She got to keep her large house after the divorce, has an amicable relationship with her ex husband, and a close circle of friends among her colleagues at the health centre and her neighbours.

After a 30 year absence her mother turns up on her doorstep. Thrilled at the opportunity to re-establish the relationship, Beth invites her mother to move into her home. It’s a joyous time, with Alice playing the model mother and grannie. Joyful until that is, things start going awry. Beth’s friends become noticeably less friendly; she makes mistakes at home and begins to feel someone is watching her every move. As the disasters mount up, and it’s clear someone is determined to wreck her life, she seeks solace in her mother’s warm embrace.

It’s a reasonable enough, (though not especially novel) plot but it’s dragged down by the repetitive nature of the narrative and the glaringly obvious solution to the various twists and turns.

Incredulous naivety

My struggles with this novel were compounded by my irritation with the main character of Beth. A woman so naive that when a stranger knocks on her door and says “I’m your long-lost mother” she not only believes her, but within days she’s asking her to take up residence. Er, wouldn’t a request for some proof (like a birth certificate) be in order??

But no, Beth takes everything this woman says as gospel truth. It’s bleedingly obvious to the reader that this is all too good to be true. Told by mum that the two women you thought were your best friends had made some horribly hurtful comments, wouldn’t you want to ask them personally for an explanation? But not our Beth, she just pours another drink and sniffles away. It’s hard to buy into a plot which contains a gaping hole of this size.

This is a novel that over-promises but under-delivers on the menace front. We get hints early on that all is not right in Beth’s life even before mum comes calling.

In Chapter 3 she shares her dread that “something that happened a long, long time ago, something I thought I’d managed to bury forever, might not be buried at all.” Another hint comes in Chapter 4: “The thing I’ve tried to bury so deep it can never escape. Now I’m starting to think I’m not being paranoid after all. I’m coming convinced that finally, after all these years, someone’s coming for me.”

The explanation is slow to materialise and when it does, it’s an anti-climax.

SPOILER ALERT: SKIP THE NEXT PARAGRAPH IF YOU WANT TO AVOID LEARNING WHAT IS HAUNTING BETH

I don’t mean to dismiss bullying as a serious issue or to play down the horrid nature of what Beth did when she was aged 13. My point is that the author’s hints create certain expectations of ‘a big reveal’ that never actually materialises.

That’s not to say however that this is a book without any redeeming features. If it had been that bad I wouldn’t have read to the end.

The theme of gaslighting is handled well and we see how seemingly insignificant remarks and incidents snowball so that the victim ends up questioning their own judgment and grasp on reality. Even though I didn’t care that much for Beth as a character it was still sad to see how much her life spins out of control, particularly when intimate film footage of her is posted on social media.

Sadly this wasn’t enough to counter the elements I didn’t enjoy. I see that some Goodreads reviewers shared by reservations about this novel. To be fair however, others thought it fast-paced and compelling and gave it four and five stars. If they enjoyed it, I’m happy for them. All I can really say is that it wasn’t to my taste.

The Happy Family by Jackie Kabler: Footnotes

The Happy Family was published in the UK by One More Chapter in June 2021. I received an advance copy via NetGalley in return for an honest review.

This is the third novel from Jackie Kabler a former journalist and broadcaster. She worked in television news for GMTV, BBC and ITV news, then went on to present a property show for Sky. She is now a presenter on shopping channel QVC.

This was book number 18 in my #20booksofsummer2021 project.

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