It is an understatement to say Alison McGovern’s family has had some setbacks. Once, they had a lovely house, she owned a thriving beauty salon called ‘Face Value’, and her husband, Marco, took over his successful family restaurant. But… Marco had other ideas. He wanted more – his ideas were grand, but he ended up taking their house AND her business along with his, when he overextended himself financially by borrowing against their assets. Now Alison, Marco, and their teenage son, Angelo live in a tiny rented cottage living on the cheapest of groceries and finding it difficult to make ends meet.
Their circumstances seem to be ‘on the up’ when, within just a few days of each other, they both procure employment. Ali gets work as a beautician/art therapist at an independent psychiatric hospital situated in the Galloway countryside. Her beautician experience was embellished on her resume, and she feels a sham, but the excellent salary offered causes her to push her guilt to the recesses of her mind. Despite her lack of psychiatric knowledge about her new position, she seems to form an immediate bond with one of the residents of ‘Howell Hall’. Sylvie has been diagnosed as having hysterical catatonia – but she reacts to Ali’s kind advances.
“Touch is a problem for British people and maybe Scots most of all. We’re not huggers. But gentle touch can do wonders for someone feeling the ache of loss or loneliness.”
She begins to enjoy the work, despite herself, but senses that there are many secrets being hidden at Howell Hall. Nothing is quite what they would have you assume…
“What was the rottenness at the heart of Howell Hall?”
The title of the novel references a psychiatric test called “House. Tree. Person.” in which the patient is asked to draw these three things in order for the doctors to assess their personality.
The reader is made aware that Alison has a dark secret in her past. We know that she had been emotionally unwell, and that she herself had been hospitalized for six months – years ago. Her husband Marco is constantly referring to her past illness with jibes like “when you weren’t so great”, or “don’t go down that road again”. The reader is also made aware that Alison is estranged from her parents, who live in France. Alison’s son Angelo, though moody and uncommunicative, demonstrates that he wants to protect her.
“that strange couple of days when they found the remains and we got jobs and for some reason the good news turned us sour instead of sweet.”
With only the first day of work at Howell Hall under her belt, Ali returns home to their cottage to find that there has been a body found in the grounds of the Abbey across the lane. Her son, Angelo makes a strange remark when the body is discovered. “I’d just about given up, as it goes.” This grisly discovery sets her life, and the lives of those she loves on an escalating and devastating spiral that will leave none of them unscathed.
This book was an excellent read – but extremely difficult to review as it would be only to easy to divulge too much of the plot and ruin it for future readers. Suffice it to say that I loved it just as much as a previous novel by this author that I read several years ago, “The day she died“. The characters are so real that you feel you’ve met them before. The dialogue flows seamlessly, and to say the setting was atmospheric would be an understatement. The plot was complicated, yet had a brilliant resolution. Everything I like best when reading a thriller. Very highly recommended by me!
Note: This novel was published in the UK by Constable under a different title: “The weight of angels“. Both titles fit the novel’s content superbly, though if I’m honest I do admit I prefer the UK cover over the North American one.
Catriona McPherson was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, and is the author of the Dandy Gilver historical mystery series, which was nominated for a Macavity Award in 2012. She moved to California in 2010 but she returns to Scotland every year for a wee visit to quell her homesickness.
She is now a full time writer. When not writing, she is reading, gardening, cooking, baking, cycling , and running.