Laura and her 17-year-old daughter Tilly are still reeling from the loss of Gavan, husband and father, who died falling off the scaffolding on his building site a few weeks before. The horrific reality of the consequences of her husband’s death has almost paralysed Laura.
She is drowning in debt and about to lose her home. There will be no life assurance pay-out until questions about Gavan’s death have been answered. And Tilly, once a gregarious and happy little girl, is now a sullen teenager who can barely bring herself to go to school.
Then Saffron walks into Laura’s flower shop with a lifeline; Oak Leaf Farm at Gorphwysfa, not far from town. Not the hippy commune the judgemental locals had called it, but a haven where Laura can recover from her recent seizures, and one where she and Tilly can grieve and heal.
But lies and secrets simmer just below the surface. Something is decidedly wrong at Oak Leaf. And even though Laura’s instincts to leave are undoubtedly right, the magnetic leader of the so-called family at the farm sprinkles his charm over her and Tilly, dividing them with devastating and irreparable consequences.
The narrative follows Laura and Tilly in the first-person past tense and the messiah-like leader of Oak Leaf Farm, Alex, in the third person. The short chapters leave the reader with not much more than a superficial image of any of the characters. Unfortunately, their actions and reactions are dependent on lies that only unravel at the end, meaning the story is convoluted.
There is clearly love between Laura and Tilly, but misunderstanding and poor communication opens a hole between mother and daughter that manipulators and liars fill, taking advantage. The misunderstandings are overdone in quantity and spoon-fed explanation, which is grating and pulls the reader out of the story. This is a shame because mother-daughter dynamics are potentially dynamite and could have been better exploited to add to the psychological aspect.
The opening chapters are utterly believable, focussing on two grieving people whose worlds are falling apart. And I wanted to get to know Laura and Tilly better. But I eventually admitted that their characters are hard to invest in, particularly in the second half. Tilly’s sudden maturity and Laura’s discovery of strength are unconvincing arcs. The other main character, Alex, is unstable, misguided and showing psychopathic tendencies.
I am still unsure about what the author wanted for and from this character. And even though I am a seasoned crime reader, I do like to be as hooked by a charismatic baddy as his victims. Sadly, Alex left me cold.
There is a plethora of twists and conveniences along with an elaborate backstory that leads to a rushed denouement lacking in credibility.
That said, I like the writing style, and the story, for all its weaknesses, is captivating. I enjoyed how the author injects claustrophobia and sinister hints into the pages. And excellent description adds to the isolation and murky undercurrent of the farm. It is a book I finished in one sitting and loved for the escapism factor.