A prisoner escapes from Dartmoor Prison and Anna’s secluded life living in a cottage on the moor with her family feels threatened. She’s physically distant from her husband and finds her teenage son’s internet use suspect and sinister. The question is, why? Anna has a secret in her past, one she fears still has the power to threaten her physically and emotionally. Meanwhile a young idealistic teacher begins a new job full of enthusiasm until one of her students attacks her in such a brutal way her life is changed forever.
What Lies Within is the debut novel of Tom Vowler, assistant editor of the literary journal Short Fiction and Associate Lecturer in creative writing at the University of Plymouth. The book is more than the usual psychological thriller, in fact I find it hard to categorise : it’s intelligent, subtle and sensitive, full of atmosphere and tension with a wonderful creeping menace that will keep you hooked until the end.
Throughout the story the past is the prism through which the characters face their present and their future:
‘But what it had done to her, the filter it left, through which all the future had to pass, had the permanence of granite.’
The story is split into two points of view: Anna and an unnamed first person narrator and at first they appear unconnected, but Vowler is totally in control of his story and when the two strands eventually collide the effect is both dramatic and satisfying.
Vowler writes in beautiful and understated prose that deftly and sensitively explores the difficult issues the book addresses. Your reviewer was particularly impressed by the way he handled the scenes depicting the sexual assault, as although the writing is visceral and disturbing it is never gratuitous. I also thought he captured the responses of other people to the attack with a clarity that really unsettled this reader as sadly they felt all too authentic. Vowler proves once again that it isn’t necessary to share the gender of your character in order to write with sensitivity and empathy.
Vowler is particularly strong in his descriptions of Dartmoor and I sense it is somewhere he knows well. The moor is more than just a backdrop to this story. The sense of unease and menace is compounded by the wild and lonely landscape. The moor is as isolated as the characters as they grapple with their past. The lack of intimacy between Anna and her husband is subtly reflected by the landscape and Vowler demonstrates great skill in the tender way he describes their relationship as it is pushed against the strain that threatens it.
As with every good writer the attention is in the detail and Vowler displays great skill in the way he focuses on the smallest of moments to provide a fresh and authentic voice. After the assault, our character is disgusted not by the physical scars the attacker’s left on her, but by the fact that he uses her bathroom and fails to flush:
‘How he didn’t flush it, that I had to hours later when I could bring myself to move. I used a whole bottle of bleach the next day, throwing the brush away once done. I have flushed it a hundred times since.’
One of the book’s themes is nature versus nurture and Vowler handles it well. The quotation at the beginning of the book by Henry David Thoreau leads us towards the book’s conclusion:
‘The question is not what you look at, but what you see.’
At the end though, I did feel that he veered just a little too close to cheating the reader. You won’t find any spoilers here, but I did question the character’s actions at the book’s conclusion feeling that they would have perhaps thought more carefully about certain aspects years before and saved themselves a lot of heartache.
Any Cop?: What Lies Within is an accomplished first novel. It’s a dark and unsettling read told with compassion and sensitivity that will leave you mulling over the implications long after you’ve finished reading.