The Night Olivia Fell

Written by Christina McDonald

Review written by Judith Sullivan

Judith Sullivan is a writer in Leeds, originally from Baltimore. She is working on a crime series set in Paris. Fluent in French, she’s pretty good with English and has conversational Italian and German. She is working to develop her Yorkshire speak.

The Night Olivia Fell
HQ Harpercollins
RRP: £7.99
Released: March 7 2019

The Night Olivia Fell brought to mind a type of house. The house is structurally sound, one might even say imaginative to the point nobody who could afford to buy it - would turn the chance down. Sadly, this is also the kind of house where the interior designer suffers from a certain mawkishness, a taste for the obvious and a failure to perhaps tidy up small details.

Structurally, Olivia is really well put together. Two past-tense narratives – one from the titular Olivia Knight, the other from her mother Abi Knight, which is a pacey race to the present, and sprinkled with snippets of information (that is genuinely complementary.) Toward the end, the two strands begin to interlock and converge, offering an explanation of the events and confer a resolution of sorts.

Sadly, the narrative at times is like an overstuffed room. Too many clichés and occasional plot-holes mesh with pat observations (perhaps better suited to a fridge magnet, than a novel). Taken together, these weigh down the story and leave the reader at times perplexed.

The structure however is robust.

We commence with star-student and competitive swimmer 17-year-old high-school senior Olivia being rushed to hospital. It is October and the girl was rescued from the frigid waters near the ZigZag Bridge in Portage Point, Washington. Bleeping hospital machines are keeping Olivia alive. Her mother is told that once these machines are turned off, there will be no going back. As if that wasn’t awful enough, the doctors tell Abi that Olivia is three months pregnant, and the law stipulates the medics may not turn off the life-support apparatus until the birth of the child.

Abi’s chunks of the book cover her desperate race to uncover if her only child Olivia, was pushed or fell; and to identify the circumstances of Abi’s granddaughter’s conception.  Abi is unsurprisingly in a fragile state throughout and unreliable narrator questions abound. She does muster the energy to interview boy-friends, girl-friends and others. She is aided by the mysterious and handsome Anthony Bryant, whose motives for assisting Abi are not made clear until the dénouement.

Olivia’s version of events is woven among her mother’s sections. We hear the young woman’s story from the preceding April, through to the October tragedy. It seems that up to the fall, she is swimming, applying to colleges and keeping her grades up, all the while juggling two boyfriends. Oh, and a coincidental meeting between Olivia and a lookalike causes Olivia to raise difficult (for Abi) questions about her own parentage.

Olivia comes across as a pleasant and intelligent young woman, just bordering on the sickly-sweet. And towards the end, I began to regret she would not attend university or meet her own daughter.

But during many of Olivia’s scenes, I wondered if she and her friends talk as kids do circa 2018. Some fragments of dialogue sounded dated, like something torn from the script of Happy Days. These kids struck me as very old-fashioned, in fact quaint. For example, they actually seemed to speak to each other rather than use Instagram. There were also plot issues that seemed rather contrived. Abi does not check her daughter’s email until several weeks after the accident, which struck me as strange, especially since she had her daughter’s password all along; also, Abi is always Miss Knight – and that struck me as odd for a single 30-something woman living in this century, and this was never explained satisfactorily.

All in all, Olivia has much to recommend it as a debut crime thriller, as the pages seem to turn by themselves. I look forward to McDonald’s next work, hoping she manages to sidestep some of the platitudes that get in the way of a cracking story.

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