Source: Review copy
Publication: 5th August 2021 from Penguin
My thanks to the publisher for an advance copy for review
Vanessa has always found it easy to pretend to be somebody different, somebody better. When things get tough in her real life, all she has to do is throw on some nicer clothes, adopt a new accent and she can escape.
That’s how it started: looking round houses she couldn’t possibly afford. Harmless fun really. Until it wasn’t.
Because a man who lived in one of those houses is dead.
And everyone thinks Vanessa killed him…
I like Nuala Ellwood’s writing. She’s always surprising and her novels unpredictable while dealing with perfectly plausible scenarios. In The Perfect Life, Vanessa Adams does something that we’ve all thought about at some point. She loves to dream about living a better life and when she does think about it, it is always in a different, more upmarket house.
So she begins making appointments to view houses she could not possibly afford. She adopts a different persona for these appointments – one more in keeping with the house she has gone to view; one that says money and contentment – quite different from the life she is currently leading.
Until one day she finds the police on her doorstep. The last house she visited was Holly Maze House, a house she remembers well from her childhood. A house where her favourite character from her childhood storybooks lived. Now it has a dead body in it and Vanessa was the last person to visit.
I read a lot of psychological thrillers and while enjoying this one a great deal for the tension it brings and the really unsettling nature of what Vanessa experiences, I read a lot of this book thinking smugly that I could see where it was heading. Well, that was pretty stupid of me, because in actuality I was completely wrong.
What I love about this book is the way that Nuala Ellwood slowly and forensically peels back the layers of Vanessa’s life. Utilising alternating timelines, Ellwood takes us back to Vanessa’s early life where we see her grieving for her mother who dies tragically and her father retreated into another marriage becoming distant. She relies on her supportive sister, Georgie, and has a great best friend in Lottie and when she meets the man of her dreams, handsome, caring Connor, she knows he will look after her.
Vanessa has a great job in an agency where she can be creative and is impressive in her role, but that slowly begins to fall apart as her perfect life starts to disintegrate and she finds herself retreating more and more into herself as she loses her best friend and increasingly begins escaping her own life through the visiting of other people’s homes.
As she finds herself increasingly isolated, Vanessa life is spiralling downwards and now the police suspect her of a devastating crime. Did she do it? She certainly lied her way in there. But Vanessa can say nothing because she’s not really sure who she is any more.
Verdict: Nuala Ellwood manages to convey the slow and deliberate destruction of a life and although it becomes clear to the reader what is happening, it’s a perfect example of what happens when the person to whom it is happening can’t see it at all. This makes for a tense and dark read and the pacing is perfect to help achieve that. Though I thought the end could have been slightly better telegraphed, it did help to make this both surprising and twisted read and I was glued to it.
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Nuala Ellwood is the author of three bestselling novels: My Sister’s Bones for which she was selected as one of the Observer’s ‘New Faces of Fiction 2017’, Day of the Accident and The House on the Lake. Nuala lives in York with her young son.