by Erin Kelly (Pamela Dorman Books)
The Poison Tree and The Dark Rose, Erin Kelly’s first two novels, were engrossing thrillers with wonderful plot twists and loose ends that didn’t get tied until the very last page. Set partially in the ‘90s, both novels are romantic and gothic, with crumbling London mansions and pouty heroines who go around smoking clove cigarettes and studying medieval tapestry. Their thick, heady atmosphere—which is less cheesy and more self-aware than this review is making it sound— accounts for at least 50 percent of their appeal.
The backdrop to The Burning Air is, for this reader anyway, less attractive, and this starts the novel off on weaker footing. Though Kelly sets us up with a teaser — the beginnings of a confession made years after the secret deed was done — the first quarter of the book isn’t very thrilling at all, just a limply literary depiction of some vaguely unlikable people on vacation.
The story opens as the happy, privileged extended family of the MacBrides begin to gather at their country home to observe Guy Fawkes Day, a traditional English weekend of bonfires and parties. Close-knit and chummy, they do this every year. But this year’s holiday is marred by the recent death of the family matriarch, Lydia, who as a court judge and wife of the headmaster of a prestigious private school, was a pillar of the community. She and her husband Rowan raised their children Sophie, Tara, and Felix in a beautiful home and with every advantage, including enrollment at the school.
Rowan, unhinged by grief, gets stinking drunk on the night the others get there, which is so unusual of him as to shock his grown children. Throughout the evening the siblings arrive with their own children and partners, one of whom is an outsider to their little tribe. Felix’s new girlfriend, with her pale skin and shining black hair, is beautiful — seemingly far out of his league — but weirdly silent. The stranger in their midst lends the get-together, already haunted by Lydia’s absence, a vague feeling of unease.
This being a thriller, we’re not meant to be surprised when, during the general chaos of Bonfire Night, everything goes terribly wrong. What is surprising is how the incident fails to grab us by the lapels. There’s something sort of unappetizing about the MacBrides — they come across as uptight and uninteresting— but their flaws aren’t so extreme as to make them seem dastardly. It’s hard to tell how Kelly wants us to view them.
What a treat it is, then, when she dips back in time by 15 years to tell us a new story. This one, about a strange, deprived child whose life intersects unhappily with the MacBrides’, is creepy and suspenseful—deliciously engaging—and ultimately delivers the novel’s most stunning surprise. As she proved twice before, Kelly is a mystery writer of great skill, and she’s in full command of her talents here. You just need to trust that she knows where she’s going.
There’s a challenge in talking about a story like this one, whose components fit together like the pieces of a puzzle box. It’s impossible to describe it in much detail without giving away something central to the suspense, surprise and pleasure the book was made to deliver. But it won’t interfere with anyone’s enjoyment of the novel to reveal that it addresses a few social ideas of some substance, underneath the thrills that make it a thriller. In this novel, Kelly has taken on the thorny issue of social class, and the way good “fortune,” when it comes to wealth and opportunity, is rarely about luck. These are ideas that seem to be of perennial interest and relevance to British readers, with their history of codified social roles, but they apply to American society too, if only we Americans could admit it.
Fictional stories scare us because they contain a kernel of truth; however fantastic they may become, they must play on real fears or they won’t succeed. Creeping, unspoken anxieties, like the kind that might be felt by people who suspect they don’t deserve their privilege, and guilty secrets — those skeletons rattling loudly in the closet —work best of all. Kelly has brought all these elements together to create an unsettling atmosphere that’s almost Shakespearean in its combination of divided loyalties, confused identities, and fatal flaws. If by the novel’s end you still aren’t sure which characters deserve your sympathy, she has succeeded in both giving you a thrill and making you think. It’s a pleasure to be able to say that she’s produced another winning novel—and to look forward to her next one.