- - Thursday, September 8, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

WATCHING EDIE

By Camilla Way

New American Library, $26, 304 pages

At the beginning of “Watching Edie” a doorbell rings. When Edie responds her “world seems to tilt.” She has to grasp the door frame so she doesn’t fall. Her mouth fills with “the sour taste of fear.” On the doorstep is Heather, her best friend when they were 16. That friendship ended one night after an incident involving the two girls and Edie’s boyfriend Connor. Whatever happened was so like a “horror film or nightmare” that Edie’s mother says she doesn’t want to hear of it again, and next morning Edie leaves for London never to return. Now aged 33, she’s startled when Heather hugs her affectionately; she flinches when Heather gently takes a strand of hair in her fingers. She’s nonplussed as well as scared at Heather’s arrival, so after making her a cup of tea, she hustles her away, and never answers any of the innumerable phone messages she leaves.

What happened to cause these reactions? Why the breach? Why no contact with her mother or Heather for so long? These questions power much of the tension in this novel.

The other source is the unfolding story of those few months when Edie and Heather were unlikely best friends. Edie is the pretty one, and she’s good-natured and popular too. Heather is not, Edie explains “There is something … off-kilter about Heather … An indefinable something missing somehow. It’s there in the too-eager smile that never falters, in that fixed hazel stare. The way she is so large and clumsy yet can creep up behind you so silently that you don’t realize she’s there until you turn and find her right behind you.” She shows up again a few weeks later when Edie has just given birth to a baby conceived after a one-night affair, and is sliding into post-natal depression. This is Heather’s cue to take over, not only doing all the baby care but also cutting Edie off from the uncle who is her sole supportive relative.

Heather and Edie take turns as narrators. Edie’s focus is her current situation, her attempts to pull herself together, “to take care of [her] daughter, to at least try.” Heather’s narration looks back to her family life. As a small child they had lived in Wales, but after her sister drowned, they moved to a provincial town in England. Her parents are both intensely religious and withdrawn. They seemingly blame her for her sister’s death, and though they encourage her academically, they neglect her emotionally. Edie’s arrival is the highlight of her school life. Edie is also a newcomer to the town, and like Heather she is blamed by her mother — in her case for her father’s departure. These similarities perhaps explain their friendship. Heather is the obsessive — and possessive — one; Edie is easygoing, kindly but casual, and after she meets Connor, much less involved because Connor occupies all her emotional space.

Author Camilla Way handles this dual narrative well, meting out details that develop and sustain the tension as readers puzzle their way to answers to questions about what reft the chasm in that teenage friendship. She captures the bleakness of the little town where Edie and Heather live, so that when she paints deft sketches of schoolyards and canal sides their dreariness is manifest. Equally, her brilliantly lit scenes of the scary old quarry where teens get up to no good show how what an exciting venue it would be for emotionally and culturally impoverished girls like Edie and Heather.

The author’s gradual revelations also make it easy to see why Edie falls for Connor, and how he manipulates her sexually and draws her into drugs. Because information trickles out so slowly, pressure builds. An explosion, a release, is inevitable, but how it will occur, what it will be, is obscure until the end.

It is Camilla Way’s controlling rein on the narrative — and also her sharp eye for dialogue — that fuels readers’ attention rather than the characterization of the central characters. Edie and Heather have plenty of characteristics; neither is vaguely drawn, yet neither do they have the complexity that makes them jump from the page. There is something of the case study about both of them. In contrast, some of the minor characters have a more evocative presence. Edie’s neighbor Monica is an example, and Heather’s parents, especially her mother, are powerfully felt presences. The bad-boy appeal of Connor is evident too.

“Watching Edie” is Camilla Way’s second novel and shows a considerable aptitude for the psychological thriller. The second half is particularly powerful, and the final answers to readers’ questions are far from predictable.

Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.


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