Despite my hearing wonderful things about this novel, for one reason or another it has sat on my TBR for far longer than I would have liked. Now, finally, I’ve had a chance to read it – only to find that all the praise it received was very well deserved. WOW! What an outstanding debut!
Rachel Jenner, recently divorced from pediatrician husband John Finch, is still smarting from her marriage break-up. She is now the single Mum to her eight-year-old son, Ben. Ben is the much loved centre of her life. Since her divorce she and Ben live in a small house in Bristol.
One Sunday in October, Rachel, Ben, and their cocker spaniel go for their usual walk in a woodland park. Ben is, as usual, full of childish energy and wants to run ahead to reach a swing. Rachel allows him this small bit of independence. A decision she will come to regret deeply – for when Rachel reaches the swing, Ben is nowhere to be found. Panicked and increasingly desperate, Rachel looks for Ben, eventually enlisting the help of strangers and then the police.
“I frightened people because I was someone to whom the worst was happening, and they turned on me like a pack of dogs.”
The policeman in charge of the case to find Ben is Detective Inspector James Clemo. We know he is ardent in his search for Ben because we meet him through his interaction with a psychologist after the case’s resolution. We know that the case has left him emotionally unstable. He no longer feels in control of his career or of his personal life. He suffers from debilitating insomnia and panic attacks. His meetings with Dr. Francesca Manelli were a condition set forth in order for him to maintain his police career in CID.
Rachel is distraught. She has lost her anchor and finds her life meaningless without Ben – her intelligent and sensitive little boy. She sleeps in his bed at night, breathing in his scent via his sheets and stuffed toys. The writing is magnificent making Rachel’s loss palpable. To further worsen her plight, she is vilified in the press and on social media. A blog is published with the sole purpose of blaming her for her dereliction of duty as a mother by letting him run ahead unattended. Journalists are parked outside her house, hounding her as she leaves and enters. Under extreme duress she behaves badly at a press conference, adding fuel to the fire that seems to want to consume her…
The police are looking into everyone in her life – and Ben’s life. All her family, friends, and acquaintances. All Ben’s friends and the staff of his school. No one is free from their purview and Rachel is aware that even the police see her as a suspect. During the course of the investigation, family secrets are revealed that forever change Rachel’s life and her view of what she has ever known to be true is now under question.
“Trust is like that. Once you lose it, you begin to adjust your attitudes toward people, you put up guards, and filter the information you want them to know.”
Not only did I immensely enjoy the story of “What she knew“, I also very much relished the many beautiful sentences scattered throughout the narrative.
“Dawn crept in in fits and starts, the pall of total darkness reluctant to retreat.”
This book is a cautionary tale of what happens when we judge another person and find them wanting. Of what can happen if our trust is misplaced. It reinforces the motto “Carpe Diem” and reminds us to cherish the little things in life.
DI Jim Clemo was very likable, but I found him to have almost too much empathy to be a policeman. I wanted him to suffer less.
“What she knew” takes place over a nine day period. The anguish Rachel Jenner suffers during this brief period is intense. As a reader, you find yourself flipping the pages manically in order to find out how her plight will unfold and if Ben will be found…
Highly recommended to all who enjoy a well written police procedural/psychological thriller.
“What she knew” is the first novel in the police procedural mystery series featuring Detective Jim Clemo of the Bristol Police. The second novel in the series is “Odd Child Out“ which is a new addition to my TBR.
FYI: “What she knew” was also published under the title “Burnt Paper Sky”
If you are interested in finding more books that were published under completely different titles see my blog post: Same Book, Different Title
Gilly Macmillan is the New York Times bestselling author of What She Knew and The Perfect Girl. She trained as an art historian and worked at The Burlington Magazine and the Hayward Gallery before starting a family. Since then she’s worked as a lecturer in photography, and now writes full-time. She resides in Bristol, England.