Wicked tease. Hot page-turner

Ecstatic review excerpts adorning book covers should, of course, be viewed with suspicion. But occasionally they live up to the ballyhoo. Happily, Disclaimer is worth the rah-rah.

“The best thriller I’ve read this year,” declares Rosamund Upton, bestselling British author. She’s right. Renée Knight has the rare ability to command and sustain attention because she’s a wicked tease. It’s her first novel and, judging by the highly intelligent whodunit factor, she has found her niche. Her apprenticeship as a BBC documentary-maker probably helped to shape the brisk choreography of her style.

Disclaimer is subtitled “Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental… ”. Well, you could have fooled me. The cast is living and breathing, which makes this realistic tale a compulsive read. Like Rosemary’s Baby and similar classic bogeyman tales, the trick is to thrust fear and horror into the lives of nice folks. The best of us come up with the occasional fit of paranoia now and then – but sometimes the nightmare comes true.

Disclaimer is a deeply observant study of character under stress. Knight’s range covers what Zorba the Greek dubbed “the whole disaster’’ of family life. Innocent children, belligerent adolescents, feckless yuppies, anxious parents and the complex dance of ageing. All this – and then she tosses in terrifying ingredients: obsession, hatred, regret. Oh, and evil too. 

It’s difficult to sketch the plot without giving the game away, but suffice it to say that a sensible, capable woman is shaken out of workaday complacency by a raving stranger who will stop at nothing in his cunning plan to avenge the death of his son. So the lives of a group of Londoners are invaded and desecrated by a controlled madness.

The internet is an enormous aid in inflicting malice and confusion on perceived enemies and their associates. Knight is particularly sharp on the social dislocations created by constant messaging. She describes a bunch of youngsters in a pub, drinks at the ready, a scene from any decade, except they weren’t speaking. They weren’t even looking at each other. “Their eyes were down on their phones, likes a bunch of old ladies checking their bingo cards.”

An unhappy 26-year-old sits, chatting away with his fingers, telling anyone out there what he thinks, what he’s up to. A deceitful stranger  tempts him into a drug den. “A shit-hole of a place, but it’s fine once you shut your eyes. After a while you don’t notice the smell.” And you don’t realise that the seemingly naive youngster seeking your online friendship is actually a crazed old looney.

By way of contrast, Knight has a hard-working lawyer, musing aboard an early morning bus, gazing benevolently at a young African nurse going home after night shift. A good woman, he thinks, a woman without vanity, who works to support her family. Then he decides his thoughts are racist; the presumption of simplicity, the imposition of worthiness to her existence is patronising. Ironically, the lawyer is the father of the young dope artist, who drowns his sorrows with random substances in sordid dives.

Psychologists are increasingly vocal these days about the dangers to alienated youth of obsession with electronics.

paints nightmarish outcomes for malleable minds. Yes, it’s a hair-raising tale, but it’s also a hot page-turner.

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