Source: Review copy
Publication: 14 November 2019 from Orenda Books
Carrie’s best friend has an accident and can no longer make the round-the-world trip they’d planned together, so Carrie decides to go it alone.
Violet is also travelling alone, after splitting up with her boyfriend in Thailand. She is also desperate for a ticket on the Trans-Siberian Express, but there is nothing available.
When the two women meet in a Beijing Hotel, Carrie makes the impulsive decision to invite Violet to take her best friend’s place.
Thrown together in a strange country, and the cramped cabin of the
train, the women soon form a bond. But as the journey continues, through
Mongolia and into Russia, things start to unravel – because one of these women
is not who she claims to be…
Take not one, but two unreliable narrators. Place these two young women together on the Trans-Siberian Express with stopping places full of eastern promise and excitement and wait for the chemistry to impact and the sparks to fly.
Susi Holliday’s psychological thriller is an event laden thrill ride with dark and menacing undertones which lurk like basking sharks just beneath the surface.
Violet is feeling bruised. Alone in Beijing she is missing her boyfriend with whom she fell out somewhere in Thailand and she is determined to carry on her backpacking journey alone. She tries to get a ticket for Trans-Siberian Express to Moscow but when she approaches the desk it appears that all tickets are sold out. Carrie is travelling solo, too. Her best pal, Louise, broke her leg just before they were due to go away and Carrie is e-mailing Louise regularly to let her know what she is missing. Violet bumps into Carrie at the ticket desk and the pair head off together to the bar for several drinks; leading Carrie to offer Violet her spare ticket for the sleeping compartment on the train. Their exotic and adventure filled journey is to take them from Beijing through Mongolia to Russia.
This is a story told from Violet’s perspective. Everything we know comes from her, save for the e-mails which Carrie writes to Louise. But those too have something to tell us if we look carefully.
It’s clear pretty much from the outset that Violet is not offering full disclosure and though both girls are happy to party, Carrie is the more outgoing one, ready to chat to anyone. Violet is ready to take advantage of Carrie’s generosity though she wants to keep Carrie close.
Soon what looked early on like a great friendship is undermined by the actions of one or other of the women and we find it difficult to come to grips with either of them because their facades belie their true natures. Amid the partying, drink and drugs something tawdrier is simmering.
I love Susi Holliday’s writing in this book. She presents her young women as happy backpackers, young and carefree, ready to live life to the max. They are like happy, smiling, alabaster dolls and then as we watch, their faces start to display the crackle of a damaged veneer and soon bits of plaster are falling off and what lies underneath is damaged and ugly. As I read, I couldn’t help visualising Violet as a bird hybrid. Part magpie, attracted by new shiny things that she just has to collect and part cuckoo, sizing up Carrie’s nest and worming her way in before taking up residence in a way that leaves no room for Carrie.
Violet is a fast paced and action packed psychological thriller, but it is also beautifully layered and the slow unpeeling of these layers is what makes Violet really special. While the action and interaction are in themselves engrossing, it is the simmering tension and heightened apprehension that is bubbling beneath the surface that keeps the reader on tenterhooks. I can see why the comparison has been made with Patricia Highsmith.
Verdict: Violet is a compelling cocktail of a toxic friendship riddled with obsession and laced with venom and it is chilling, dark, pernicious and completely immersive. I loved it.
S.J.I. (Susi) Holliday is a scientist, writing coach and the bestselling author of five crime novels, including the Banktoun Trilogy (Black Wood, Willow Walk and The Damselfly), the festive chiller The Deaths of December and her creepy Gothic psychological thriller The Lingering. Her short story ‘Home From Home’ was published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and shortlisted for the CWA Margery Allingham Prize. Encapsulating her love of travel and claustrophobic settings, her latest novel, Violet, explores toxic friendships and the perils of talking to strangers, as well as drawing on her own journey on the Trans-Siberian Express over 10 years ago. All of her novels have been UK ebook number-one bestsellers. Susi was born and raised in Scotland and now divides her time between Edinburgh, London and as many other exciting places that she can fit in.