Source: Review copy
Publication: 10 June 2021 from Pan MacMillan
My thanks to Sarah Hilary and Pan MacMillan for an advance copy for review
Everything she touches breaks . . .
Nell Ballard is a runaway. A former foster child with a dark secret she is desperate to keep, all Nell wants is to find a place she can belong.
So when a job comes up at Starling Villas, home to the enigmatic Robin Wilder, she seizes the opportunity with both hands.
But her new lodgings may not be the safe haven that she was hoping for. Her employer lives by a set of rigid rules and she soon sees that he is hiding secrets of his own.
But is Nell’s arrival at the Villas really the coincidence it seems? After all, she knows more than most how fragile people can be – and how easy they can be to break . . .
Sarah Hilary is one of the most exciting writers I know. Her prose is scalpel sharp; the structure of her novels is flawless and her subject matter is always relevant and exciting. So a stand-alone from this superb author is a moment to rejoice and Fragile is an absolute triumph. From the outset it is the intensity of her characters that grasps the reader. Often, whilst reading, I found that I was holding my breath and when I had finished this stunning book I felt as if I had been walking barefoot on splintered glass.
Nell Ballard has never really known what it is to be loved, but she has made up for it by loving those she cares for. Rejected by her mother when she was only 8 years old, she has been living in a foster home in Wales, where she was born, ever since. Meagan Flack is her foster mother, a bitter, chain-smoking woman who takes in children for the money. Flack cares not for the children, but Nell, starved of love, makes up for that deficit by learning how to be a caring mother, despite the complete absence of such role mothers in her life.
It’s a hard burden to put on a child and Nell is not mature, so her love for the other children in the home and her shouldering of domestic tasks mask what’s really going on in her mind. All Nell really wants is to be loved and to have that love reciprocated, but with no knowledge of what that really means, it’s pure emotion that flows through her.
Meagan does not like Nell, despite all that Nell does to keep the children clean and fed. There’s a boy in the home, Jo Beach and he and Nell pair up. Jo is a chancer. A charming but sly boy, he has learnt his survival skills from his foster homes and he knows how to deflect blame and inveigle himself into the good graces of the adults around him. It is his special skill.
Joe is a good looking boy, which makes him less of a trial to Meagan. They recognise common traits in each other. Then, after Joe and Meagan have spent a wonderful day swimming, tragedy strikes.
Joe convinces Nell to run away with him and the pair end up in London, where Joe takes the lead, using his charm and his grifting skills to find places to stay; never staying long but though he and Nell feel they are exploiting those they meet, they are still exploited children doing what they can to stay alive in an unfamiliar and unforgiving city.
Nell does all she can to cling on to Joe whom she loves so much. But something in Joe is broken; he is a lost cause who disappears off leaving Nell to search for him. And that search takes her to Starling Villas, a narrow townhouse. The last time she saw Joe, he was heading inside.
It’s the only clue to his whereabouts that she has, and so Nell, after keeping watch, decides to find a way in. Using her brain, she finds that the owner, Dr Robert Wilder, is in need of an assistant and cleaner, but she manages to parlay her way into the role of housekeeper.
Wilder has very clear ideas of what is expected of her. He has rules for the order in which things are to be done; what he will eat and how it will be served. Nell sets out to make herself indispensable, keeping in the background, adhering to his rules and polishing and scrubbing the house.
Wilder appears unfeeling, hard and yet straining at the seams with repressed emotion. Starling Villas is a cold and unwelcome place; an invisible house slotted between other buildings, hiding its secrets away. It’s a cold and isolating space that feels somehow other; unreal and out of place.
Hilary does that sense of gothic so well; you can feel the seeping tension between the Wilder and Nell which is part borne of the relationship between the middle aged Wilder and the teenage Nell, his housekeeper and partly the presence of Carolyn Wilder, Robin Wilder’s wife, whose bitter malice is pure poison. Though there are strong echoes of Rebecca in this story, there’s something of Wuthering Heights too. Passion, obsession, jealousy, intimacy, and secrets are all part of the Starling Villas mix.
Told mainly by Nell, we also hear from Meagan Flack whose flashbacks helps to give added dimension to a story sometimes seen from two sides.
It’s hard to explain how Hilary achieves this tension, this sense of danger that pervades the house and makes everyone who enters it so enveloped in a cruel mist of bitterness and anger, but she does and it is a remarkable sensation. The sense of repression just builds until even an exchange in the local shop becomes sharp with meaning.
As Fragile reaches its heart-breaking conclusion, corrosive relationships, fractured dreams and spiteful revenge all take their toll, leading to a devastating finale.
Verdict: Fragile is a book full of menace and grim foreboding that is fully played out. These are fragile people; some cracked, just waiting to splinter apart, some broken already. An intense, complex, layered and beautifully drawn character driven novel, it will seep into your bones and cause you to feel profound loss and grief for these poor children whose lives should have been so different.
Ledbury Bookshop (signed copies) Bookshop.org Waterstones
Sarah Hilary’s debut novel, Someone Else’s Skin, won the 2015 Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year and was a World Book Night selection. The Observer’s Book of the Month (‘superbly disturbing’) and a Richard and Judy Book Club bestseller, it has been published worldwide. No Other Darkness, the second in the series, was shortlisted for a Barry Award in the U.S. Her D.I. Marnie Rome series continues with Tastes Like Fear, Quieter Than Killing, Come and Find Me, and Never Be Broken. Fragile is her first standalone novel.
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Thank you so much for this generous and insightful review, Mary. I’m thrilled you loved Fragile.