The Underneath by Melanie Finn
Even back in London, Kay felt estranged from the woman she used to be. Despite its dangers, her time as a journalist in war-torn Central Africa, gave her an adrenaline rush that made her feel more alive. Part of her resents her children for taking that away from her and now, cut off from friends, the strain of single parenthood shows.
So it’s a relief to meet Ben, a local man through whom she is able to revive the impulsive hedonism of her African years. But would she be so relaxed with him if she knew what the reader discovers about his history of violence? And can we, with more insight into his story, forgive his involvement in drug trafficking if it enables him to rescue an abused and neglected child?
How could I resist the almost-namesake of my own second novel, Underneath? Especially when I so enjoyed her previous novel, Shame? Although the author serves up that somewhat annoying but crowd-pleasing thriller trope of sending the protagonist into danger with her eyes wide open, the narrative tension comes with significant psychological depth.
As with her previous novel, there are no clear boundaries between victim, perpetrator and rescuer in The Underneath. Kay loves her children, but she knowingly hurts them. She cared passionately for the victims of atrocities whose stories she collected in Africa, but benefited from the immunity afforded by her white skin. Is she really much different to the addicts who lock their children away to “party”? Are the criminals who pepper the narrative truly responsible for their actions when their childhoods were so deprived?
I suspect that some readers will find the ambiguity exasperating (as some did with my own version of Underneath) but, for me, Melanie Finn delivers the right kind of uncomfortable in exploring our complicity in what’s wrong with the world. An intelligent novel about a mother’s love and hatred, and the violence lurking below the surface of so many lives, The Underneath is published in the UK by Head of Zeus who provided my review copy.
Pieces of Me by Natalie Hart
But, after a stuttering start, she warms to American paramedic, Adam, a safe haven amid the conflict that surrounds them both. Before long, they’re married, and Emma’s beginning a new life on the edge of the army base in Colorado Springs. Before she’s had time to establish herself, Adam’s redeployed to Iraq.
The network of military wives offers a support structure in their husbands’ absence, although Emma feels culturally and politically estranged from them, even her new friend Kate. She feels more at home with a group of refugee artists she meets through Noor, an exiled Kurd. With the torturous withdrawal of troops from the area, resentment of Iraqis in America grows. Emma finds a purpose in mentoring a refugee family, but even Adam thinks she’s chosen the wrong side.
When her husband returns after eight months away, there’s little left of the man she fell in love with. For a whole year she waits for the man he was to come back to her, her patience tested by his unwillingness to confide in her, or to share his vulnerability with anyone else.
Pieces of Me is a poignant story of love and war, and how both can sour when the underlying motivations are incompletely understood. I admired the author’s courage – and her publisher’s, Legend Press, who provided my review copy – in the age of up lit, for eschewing happy ever afters while still serving up an ending with a glimmer of hope. Two rescuers, both unwilling to be rescued themselves, had the odds stacked against them, even without the pressures of cultural difference and war.
There’s a story about a couple of refugees from a war zone in my forthcoming short story collection, Becoming Someone. Now that the cover has been uncovered in a lovely post via Books, Life and Everything, I’m excited to begin showing its face here. If you’re a book blogger who enjoys short stories and would like a digital review copy, please consider signing up to my list.