Gwen Moffat lives in Cumbria. Her novels are set in remote communities ranging from the Hebrides to the American West. The crimes fit their environment, swelling that dreadful record of sin in the smiling countryside cited by Sherlock Holmes. The style echoes this: rustic charm masking horror.
There is a pantomime quality to this novel starting with the wary conceit that it could be a case of man bites dog, and permeated throughout with alarm bells suggesting the title could more aptly be “Look Behind You”.
The protagonist is Karen, a junior psychiatrist, and it’s her new patient, Jessica, who, at her first session, threatens to assume dominance. Control is the theme of the book, masquerading as sex. There are three friends, thirty-something now, bosom pals since their schooldays: Karen the clever one, insatiable lover, alert to the knowledge that nymphomania is a mask for a deeper problem. There is Bea, fat, frigid and foul-mouthed; and finally, Eleanor the matriarch, devoted wife, passionate mother and guardian of morals. Into their somewhat disordered but close-knit lives comes the self-confessed neurotic Jessica, Karen’s dubious patient: plain and dowdy in session but some kind of catalyst in the wider world. As seducer, maverick or chimera, her presence is insidious, threatening the trio’s friendship, even their lives.
In fact two of them were out of balance before her appearance, Karen coming to fear rejection from her married lover, well aware that using casual sex as compensation had as much to do with control as has rape. Poor fat Bea was frenzied in her search for love. Only Eleanor had been secure in her trusty, and trusted family – until she learned that her husband was having an affair. Karen was the informant, the other woman her patient, but the rule of confidentiality meant that initially Jessica is identified only to the reader.
Secrecy confronts publicity. Embarrassing pasts come to light courtesy of the explosive internet: a video that could be commercial porn except that the woman participant is only too recognisable. There are virtual conversations in chat rooms, artfully master-minded: sham, screwed, dangerous. Grooming comes to mind, not absurd when the victim is pushing middle-age with the emotions of an adolescent.
The narrative switches between the four women: the friends and their Nemesis, and an obvious teaser: inserted sections that flash forward to an interview between Karen and an anonymous questioner, an exchange that confirms one’s feeling of approaching doom. The evolving situation, steamy and irreversible, can be resolved only by elimination of the threat, and that will surely be the ultimate violence.
Crude, sophisticated and explicit this is an exposure of women voicing streams of consciousness. The style is colloquial, grammar sacrificed to content; a woman’s book but delivering a hefty jolt to the intelligent male reader.