Abigail, a pretty, rebellious seventeen year old, gets home from school to find her family gone. Her toddler twin stepsisters’ room is empty, save a blue teddy. The police do not believe her shock and despair at being abandoned by her mother, Kathryn. To them the girl is trouble − as she is to her ruthless, narcissistic grandmother, Eleanor: the lynchpin of the family.
Home is where the heart is: but what if there is no heart? Women who suffer neglect as children often grow up to become mothers who neglect their own, even if they do not want to on a conscious level. Thwarted female energies cause depression. Mental abuse is as serious physical abuse, and its long-term effects can be greater. Keeping up appearances at all costs − resulting in shame, secrets and lies being passed down from one generation to the next − lies at the core of this skilfully crafted, debut novel.
Heidi Perks builds up her characters layer by layer and holds the reader in suspense as the plot twists and turns to reveal what truly lurks beneath a seemingly happy picture of family life in an isolated, picture-postcard seaside village.
What Kathryn does not realize is that she is increasingly “pretty mental” and others can see clearly what she cannot. Patterns of domination and repression, the inability to communicate on an emotional level and the protective urge to keep up appearances are invisible levers of control. “She walked towards her car, the gravel crunching beneath her feet, the wind suddenly picked up and leaves whipped around her as if in some kind of frenzy. Kathryn stood still and held her arms out to her sides; she lifted her face to the sky and let the world spin around her. The whole scene seemed quite fitting and she was almost comforted by it. It felt as if the universe was balanced, the turmoil inside her mother’s brain was recreated outside. But on the other hand, she realised how great her own sense of turmoil was becoming, because if her mother was no longer able to command her, she had absolutely no idea what direction she should be heading in.”
Running parallel to Kathryn’s story is that of Abigail, the daughter she abandons. With the help of an analyst, Abi puts herself back together after the love of her life walks out of their marriage. “I didn’t start seeing Maggie because of my past; I went because I couldn’t see a future without everyone I ever loved in it.”
We are only as sick as our secrets. Emotional entombment and being manipulated like a string puppet by her ice queen mother are all that Kathryn knows. As her twin daughters grow up and begin to ask awkward questions, a train of events is triggered that finally breaks her protective shell and exposes the truth.
Joseph Garcin, journalist and littérateur, famously remarks in Sartre’s play, No Exit: “Hell is other people”. Beneath the Surface may be a bleak tale about the hell on earth caused by dysfunctional relationships on one level, but there is hope and redemption to be had. Heidi Perks is most definitely a new novelist to watch.
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Beneath the Surface by Heidi Perks | Red Door Publishing Ltd | March 2016 £7.99 352pp PB | Kindle: £2.99 | ISBN: 1910453188