Genre: Psychological Thriller
Publisher: Penguin (Michael Joseph)
Published: 20th February 2020
Reviewed: 15th December 2020
Their children are friends first. They instantly hit it off, as only kids do. So the parents are forced to get to know each other.
But as they get closer, they start to take their eyes off their children. And while they have been looking the other way, evil has crept in.
Every parent's worst nightmare is about to come true...
A stunning narrative with a breathtakingly shocking plot…
Little Friends is a psychological thriller that centres around three women and their families. Eve is married to Eric and they have three children: Poppy (11); Sorrell (6); and Ash (2). Melissa is married to Paul and they have one daughter: Isabelle (a little older than Poppy). Grace is married to Martin and they have two children: Blake (11); and Charley (9). Eve gives extra tuition to children with dyslexia: Poppy (her own daughter); Isabelle, and Blake. To varying degrees, all women are trapped in unhappy marriages and it is this simmering cauldron of discontent that allows the adults to take their eyes off the ball.
Split into six parts, the novel is structured around alternating third-person focalised narratives of the three women; there are also sections that focus on the children. Structuring the narrative in this way adds lots of tension and dramatic irony. There is a great deal of juxtaposition and conflict going on between the different perspectives and the third-person narrative works really well in dividing the reader’s loyalty – just who can be trusted? Can any of them be trusted?
The story starts with Eve, who comes across as a mother-earth type character. She has a gorgeous rambling home with a huge garden and spends her time baking bread in her cluttered and homely kitchen, whilst her children play contentedly in their bedrooms or outside in their sprawling garden. Or so she thinks! Reading Poppy’s take on things really made me laugh out loud. How a mother sees things, and then how her daughter sees things so very differently. The author has absolutely got this spot on and this will resonate with parents everywhere. Having inherited her childhood home, Eve is adamant to give her own children more freedom than her own confined childhood allowed. But just how much is too much? Eve is an averagely likeable but flawed character. Eric, Eve’s husband, is a nice enough bloke but he takes Eve for granted; and mix that with Eve’s germinating boredom and sparks soon turn to flames!
Next we meet Melissa and her daughter Izzy. It is clear that exercise-mad Melissa has issues with self-esteem and is in a controlling marriage. There is something that happens very early on (I’m not going to say what!) that made me wonder whether it was relevant to the plot or whether it was a red herring. As the plot became more twisted, I was convinced it was a red herring. Then wham; it turns out it was hugely relevant. So, I will keep you guessing on what that is! Like Poppy, Izzy also has issues with her mother. However, whereas Poppy is no different to a lot of girls her age – just a bit stroppy and trying to be popular with her peers – Izzy has her father’s controlling streak and is in a different league altogether. Think of the character ‘Jack’ in Lord of the Flies!
Grace is the most likeable of the three women; and as well as having her own voice through the alternating third-person narratives, she is also the first-person narrator of each prologue-style section at the beginning of each of the six parts. Grace is from Zimbabwe and met Martin, her English booker-prize winner husband, when he turned up at the bar where she was working. The couple fell in love over their joint love of literature; but now several years and two children later, Martin slobs around on the sofa all day whilst Grace holds down a full-time job, snatching precious free moments to write. With few friends of her own, Grace was looking forward to making a friend in Eve; but as she works all hours to make ends meet, Martin is the one who takes Blake to his extra-curricular tuition, and Martin is the one who becomes friends with Eve.
As the children and the adults all get to know each other better, dented egos and neglected relationships fight for attention. It really is a case of not knowing who's the worse – the children or the adults!
What I like about Jane Shemilt’s writing style is its clarity, both in terms of language and structure. Whilst the plot is an intricate one full of twists and turns, the narrative is so cleverly crafted, the story is still easy to follow. Although this is a third-person narrative, there are times when the author zooms in so close, you really feel like you’re in the character’s head. And whilst most of the characters do some pretty selfish things, they are so three dimensional it is hard not to empathise with them. Except Melissa’s husband – no empathy for him – but will he get his comeuppance? Well you will just have to find out for yourself!
Little Friends is yet another brilliant read from Jane Shemilt. I’ve made no secret of the fact that Daughter holds pride of place on my All-time Favourites Shelf and it looks like she will now have another member of the Shemilt family to keep her company! I would recommend this book for anybody who likes Jane Corry, Lisa Jewell, or Emily Koch.
Thank you to the author and publisher
for an Advance Review Copy of this book
in return for an honest and unbiased review
About the Author
While working as a GP, Jane Shemilt completed a postgraduate diploma in Creative Writing at Bristol University and went on to study for the MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa, gaining both with distinction. Her first novel, Daughter, was selected for the Richard & Judy Book Club, shortlisted for the Edgar Award and the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize, and went on to become the bestselling debut novel of 2014. She and her husband, a professor of neurosurgery, have five children and live in Bristol.