(I received my copy of Underneath in return for a fair and honest review… just saying)
Anne Goodwin’s latest book will be out on the 25th May. After her debut a lot was expected of Underneath. She doesn’t disappoint.
He never intended to be a jailer …
After years of travelling, responsible to no-one but himself, Steve has resolved to settle down. He gets a job, buys a house and persuades Liesel to move in with him.
Life’s perfect, until Liesel delivers her ultimatum: if he won’t agree to start a family, she’ll have to leave. He can’t bear to lose her, but how can he face the prospect of fatherhood when he has no idea what being a father means? If he could somehow make her stay, he wouldn’t have to choose … and it would be a shame not to make use of the cellar.
Will this be the solution to his problems, or the catalyst for his own unravelling?
What’s intriguing about this book, indeed both Anne’s books is you know what’s coming – well, you think you do – but just when you are sure, she surprises you; there is always another layer. If you wanted to pigeonhole this work as character or plot driven you’d maybe say ‘character’ before she does you with the plot, and vice versa. This is a consummate story teller’s yarn with many many levels to explore and characters who grow from the page like seedlings in a greenhouse.
Telling the tale in the first person can be limiting – often the protagonist is hard to access, other than through the reflected reactions of the other characters – but by splitting timelines between the present day and Steve’s past childhood, she lets us delve into the who in a very natural way.
And she’s challenged herself from the outset; as the blurb tells us, Steve is destined to do a very bad thing. Knowing this, can we possibly like him or at least can he gain enough of our empathy to make us want to find out more about what’s brought him to this sorry place. Maybe because I didn’t find much initial empathy for his girlfriend Liesel that to begin with that wasn’t so hard. And in flash backs his elders sisters are cruel to him, making us think there might be a cause. Maybe. Both are flawed and carrying baggage that continually intrigues as we learn more.
I was put in mind of those Warhol prints of Marilyn, each in a different tint – the same basic picture but each so very different because of the simple expedient of the background. Here, too, we think we have gained an insight into their character and then something else is revealed – a small feature from their past – it sometimes jars, it sometimes flows naturally – but each time the picture turns just ever so slightly, and yet we move on feeling – sometimes, in fact the change is so slight we feel we haven’t understood as we thought we had. And then the picture turns again and maybe we were right.. It’s rather unsettling, much like the plot.
These revelations are subtly done; and they are subversive. It is as if we understand less as we learn more; these are real people with all the contradictions and failings that we know from our own experiences; nothing about them is linear, simplistic or glib. Even as the novel builds to a climax the questions appear to remain: what causes Steve to take the action he does; does his mother really blame him; are his sisters as cruel as they seem; to what extent is Liesel damaged or just plain flaky? Or do they? How much is there really an answer, or rather how many different answers are there.
When I finished I sat back for a while, wondering if I was satisfied with what I now knew. Did I get the answers I needed? On a plot level yes; but for the characters, like real people we pigeonhole them and their motivations at our peril. After all there never is an ‘it’, an explanation, is there? We can debate what weight to give to what factor and never agree but never really disagree either. This a a perfectly pitched example of characters whose motivations are plain for us to see and yet still we wonder at them. Book club debates may well be lenghty…
This is a book to make you wonder, to ponder. How on earth would someone get to the point Steve gets to, if not a classic psychopath? It’s obvious and yet it’s opaque too. I think I will be unpicking this for a while yet. I really suggest you read it and make up your own mind; you won’t be disappointed.
Like Steve, Anne Goodwin used to like to travel, but now she prefers to stay at home and do her travelling in her head. Like Liesel, she’s worked in mental health services, where her focus, as a clinical psychologist, was on helping people tell their neglected stories to themselves. Now that her short fiction publication count has overtaken her age, her ambition is to write and publish enough novels to match her shoe size. Underneath is her second novel; her first, Sugar and Snails, was shortlisted for the Polari First Book Prize. Anne lives in the East Midlands and is a member of Nottingham Writers’ Studio.
Catch up on her website: annethology (http://annegoodwin.weebly.com/) or on Twitter @Annecdotist.
To buy Underneath…
Published internationally 25th May 2017 in e-book and paperback
Amazon UK https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B06X9VN6CD
Amazon USA https://www.amazon.com/dp/B06X9VN6CD/
Pre-publication Kindle reduced price offer (£1.99 / $2.48)