Every Contact Leaves a Trace is the debut novel of Elanor Dymott and some novel it is. The narrator Alex, first met his wife Rachel at Worcester College, Oxford where she was surrounded by two friends, Anthony and Cissy and he never really got to know her. Years later they met again and married. Rachel’s tutor Harry invites them both back to Worcester for Midsummer and Rachel is found later that night brutally murdered by the College lake. Months later, with the College deep in winter snow, Harry invites Alex back to Worcester and he relates the story he has long kept secret of the events leading to Rachel’s death. As the traumatised Alex faces shifting versions of the truth of what happened to Rachel, he realises that he hardly knew his wife at all. Every Contact Leaves a Trace is a literary thriller, part love story, part murder mystery that owes a lot to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.
One of Dymott’s great achievements with this novel is in the descriptions of Worcester College. She studied there herself and it’s obvious that she knows it really well. The College is vividly brought to life (with the aid of a rather lovely drawing) and it becomes as much of a character as the people who occupy it. The story itself was slow to start and at 369 pages the novel is probably a little too long and could have done with a bit more of an edit. The pace didn’t really pick up until around page 175, but then she did keep the momentum going and the big reveal was rather pleasingly left right to the very end and was skilfully done.
Alex as a character came across well, as he should in a first person narration, but for this reviewer the other characters let the novel down. Considering that Alex has found his wife with her head smashed into the lawn, Harry and Rachel’s godmother Evie, seemed to have a rather alarming lack of both empathy and sympathy for him. They both seemed so self centred that, for me, they came across as unbelievable, particularly in their dialogue which was at times rather awful.
Although in the end I came to enjoy this novel, I found the first person narration clunky and felt at times that it strained Dymott as a writer. It is Alex who tells us this story even though he is, in Harry’s words ‘hardly even a character in it for large swathes of the narrative’ and that seemed to be the problem. Alex can only tell us what others have told him and in some instances what they, particularly Harry, tell him comes second hand. As a former lawyer with an intense dislike of hearsay evidence, your reviewer found it hard to believe the story. However, after finishing the book I came to think differently and saw that this story was actually rather skilful in its construction. By presenting us with what is in the main hearsay evidence, Dymott tells a story of shifting truths and different perspectives and the elusiveness of trying to discover one person’s truth from a myriad of possibilities. We really are in Alex’s shoes as he tries to recreate what happened to his wife from the sources available to him and that in the end is the story’s power.
The novel exposes the possible darkness of human nature and how we can twist reality to suit our own purposes and use that to justify our actions to ourselves. Alex comes to realise that Harry ‘is not unusual in having had to rewrite his history in order to be able to live with himself’. It is this in the end that makes this a book worth reading and ultimately satisfying.
Any Cop?: Yes, but with reservations. Although this is a flawed novel, I feel there is enough in it to warrant watching out for Dymott in the future.