- - Thursday, August 2, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

OUR HOUSE

By Louise Candlish

Berkley, $26, 416 pages

Apart from not being able to pay the mortgage, a homeowner’s worst nightmare has to be to come home and find someone else is moving into the house.

Your furniture has gone. So have your spouse and kids. And the woman telling the movers where to put stuff is a hundred percent sure that she and her husband have just bought the property. It turns out they are right, so no surprise that Fiona Lawson, who has this experience, is utterly devastated.



What has happened? Her seriously unreliable husband Bram has sold the house, parked the children with his mother and done a runner. But Fiona — Fi — the joint owner doesn’t know any of this, and certainly has signed no sale agreement. So how has Bram contrived to sell it, and why?

The “why” is the subject of “Our House,” and its cleverly orchestrated exposition by Louise Candlish makes enthralling reading, not least because it gives equal to time to both Bram and Fi.

Fi tells her story on The Victim, a website devoted to victims’ tales of their own undoing, and is, incidentally, compulsive reading for Fi and her neighbors in an up-and-coming — and expensive — London suburb.

Bram’s story alternates with Fi’s Victim account. It begins, “Let me remove any doubt straightaway and tell you that this is a suicide note. By the time you read this, I’ll have done it. Break the news gently please. I may be a monster, but I am still a father and there are two boys who’ll be sorry to lose me, who’ll have reason to remember me more kindly. Maybe even their mother too, a one-in-a million woman whose life must be a nightmare now, thanks to me. And whom may I say for the record, I have never stopped loving.”

Bram’s terse introduction comes 13 pages into “Our House,” and by this point the reader knows about Fi’s discovery of strangers moving into her house, and will have read the beginning of her story on The Victim.

Among other things this reveals that she and Bram have separated. It also displays her socially responsible conviction that by sharing her experience on The Victim she may alert others to the potential for property fraud, or she may trigger a memory that will lead to Bram’s discovery.

Like a driver putting the key in the ignition and a foot on the accelerator of a powerful car, Louise Candlish’s swift exposition of the plot and its emotional underpinning speeds away with her readers, and keeps them clinging to their seats, eager to learn more about why and how Bram managed the heist.

These and other questions also occur to a chorus of readers of The Victim. Their Internet comments at the end of Fi’s chapters express thoughts that may have also occurred to readers. For example, when Fi describes the couple who came asking for a quick look round because they’d missed the open house, one Internet commentator suggests that Fi was dumb not to have twigged that something was wrong.

But another points out that a nearby house was actually for sale, and Fi’s assumption that the inquirers were actually looking for that one is reasonable. A third chimes in to agree and note, “She’s really brave to admit all this now.”

This is true. And she is not only brave, she is also hard-working: She has a demanding job, and she is a good — even obsessive — housekeeper and an excellent mother. As a wife she has cut Bram a lot of slack, and when she decides they must separate, most readers will agree she has good cause. “She should have taken him to the cleaners then and there,” is one Internet response.

Bram notes that at times he and the boys have called Fi “Fee Fi Fo Fum” after the fairy tale giant who announces he “smells the blood of an Englishman.” It was affectionate, he says, but “It became less so on my part once I realized that nine times out of ten the Englishman’s blood was mine.”

Such wry comments are a hallmark of Bram’s suicide note. Both these and his openness about the derelictions that lead to the house-selling scheme make him an oddly sympathetic character, more so than Fi who is bit of a Mrs. Goody Two Shoes. Here is yet another case of the villain being more attractive than the heroine.

Louise Candlish does not capture Bram’s and Fi’s differences in outlook and personality by giving them different voices; nor do their voices differ much from the narrator’s. Nonetheless the intricate plotting and clever story-telling ensure that few readers will protest too strongly about this flaw in what is otherwise an accomplished and highly readable novel.

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

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