Summer screams for murder mysteries, thrillers, and multi-generational sagas that require flowers somewhere on the paperback cover—or a quirky font on a light solid background. Berry’s thriller is a perfect read. She begins with a C.S. Lewis epigraph from which she draws the title. I am not sure how Lewis would have felt about the novel itself, however. Berry writes in clipped sentences that, in the beginning, feel almost like script notes and stage directions. Each sentence is so spare that it pulls you forward to the next and the next to discover what the narrator really has to tell you.
Berry’s use of a limited first-person narrator builds on the suspense started by her style. The technical writing style builds trust in Nora as a narrator, but events begin to shake that trust. Nora is a landscaper’s assistant. She lives in London. Her sister, Rachel, lives in a small village and works as a nurse in a hospital. She owns a house and a German shepherd. They are, for all intents and purpose, orphans. Their father is homeless and addicted. They are headed for a vacation in Cornwall. We learn about their lives as Nora daydreams on the train on her way to Rachel. We are still in her daydream when she enters the house and sees the dog hanging from its leash from a staircase bannister and ends up cradling Rachel’s dead body. As the hours and early days go by, Nora forgets Rachel is dead when she is not focused on finding her killer. Nora puts her life on hold. She quits her job, sublets her flat and takes up residence in the one inn in the village.
Berry complicates the murder investigation with an unsolved brutal attack Rachel suffered as a teenager. The circumstances of that attack drag modern biases and issues into the heart of the investigation. How responsible are women for becoming victims when they drink and engage in sexual behavior? Most of us would say of course they are not responsible for being victimized, but as the past comes into the present, Berry pushes the boundary between our rational and our emotional responses. What were they thinking? Why weren’t they more careful? Where is the line at which you judge someone to be a slut? How do we judge someone who has sought help for mental illness? Someone who comes from a very broken family?
Under the Harrow is Berry’s first novel. As a thriller, it succeeds in pulling a reader in and dragging her forward. Berry feints and keeps us guessing. Like many such novels, especially early novels, the intense pace of the novel cannot be satisfied by the ending. Berry acknowledges this, ending the novel with a ——.
Well worth the quick read at a spare 219 intense pages. Berry has succeeded in the genre of Gone Girl, Girl on the Train, and anything by Ruth Ware.