Source: Review copy
Publication: 9th July 2020 from Hodder Paperbacks
A lifetime ago, a patient escaped Nazareth mental asylum. They covered their tracks carefully. Or so they thought.
Thirty years ago, Marianne Smy committed a crime then fled from her home to leave the past behind. Or so she thought.
Now, Marianne has been forced to return. Nazareth asylum has been converted to luxury flats, but its terrible hold on her is still strong. A successful academic, a loving mother and a loyal wife, she fears her secret being revealed and her world shattering.
She is right to be scared.
There are many things that draw me to an author. I admire good plotting, enjoy dark mysteries and love a good thriller, but nothing puts me more in awe of an author than the ability to make characters live and breathe on the page. Erin Kelly has that ability in spades and it is what draws me back to her books every time. She is an understated writer, but her books are full of nuance, layered and complex with characters whose lives you feel you understand because they are so well drawn.
So it is with We Know You Know (previously in hardback as Stone Mothers). Marianne Smy came from a small town, Nusstead, in Suffolk,which depended on the work offered by the gothic building that was the old Nazareth mental asylum. When it was shut down in a campaign led by Helen Greenlaw, then the Chair of the Health Board, despite the protestations of all those who knew its closure brought poverty, she and her boyfriend Jesse would go there for romantic trysts and to explore the ramshackle structure. What they discovered one night would change their lives and destroy their relationship.
Marianne left soon after. She left in body and in spirit to become a very different person. Now she is an History of Architecture lecturer and has returned to spend time with her ailing mother. To her horror she finds that her husband has surprised her by buying her a flat in the very building that has never left her troubled dreams.
Not only that, but Jesse, who has never left and never made anything of himself, has never got over his wounded pride and is using their shared secret to force her into an action she doesn’t want to take. For so long she has kept her secret from her husband and their daughter and now everything she has is in jeopardy if she doesn’t agree.
The story begins in the present but flits back from time to time to Marianne’s childhood and to the 1950’s when the Asylum was fully operational. Erin Kelly beautifully evokes the deeply troubling times of the 1950’s when attitudes to mental health among the medical profession could be nothing short of barbaric and when women were concerned, the slightest indication of wayward behaviour would be sufficient to have them committed.
Mental health is a theme throughout this story but nowhere does it hit as hard as we learn what terrible treatment young Helen receives at the hands of the Nazareth doctors for the crime of having heartless parents who knew nothing about dealing with an independently minded young woman.
Kelly’s prose is compelling. She shows us how the three main characters became inextricably linked at the same time as she draws a picture of social inequality, social mobility and searing injustice towards women. As she traces the lives of Marianne, Jesse and Helen, she peels back the layers to show us how they became the people that we see today. Not always the most popular, certainly not always likeable, but formed from one extraordinary experience that links them forever and makes us understand that this experience was utterly real.
Verdict: I liked the storyline and found it gripping, but it is the beauty of the characters; their nuanced thoughts and actions that really spoke to me and made this an enthralling, emotive and beautifully realised read. Highly recommended
Erin Kelly is the Sunday Times bestselling author of The Poison Tree, The Sick Rose, The Burning Air, The Ties That Bind, He Said/She Said, Stone Mothers and Broadchurch: The Novel, inspired by the mega-hit TV series. In 2013, The Poison Tree became a major ITV drama and was a Richard & Judy Summer Read in 2011. He Said/She Said spent six weeks in the top ten in both hardback and paperback, was longlisted for the Theakston’s Old Peculier crime novel of the year award, and selected for both the Simon Mayo Radio 2 and Richard & Judy Book Clubs. She has worked as a freelance journalist since 1998 and written for the Guardian, The Sunday Times, Daily Mail, New Statesman, Red, Elle, Cosmopolitan and The Pool. Born in London in 1976, she lives in north London with her husband and daughters.