You don’t need a crystal ball to predict that In Her Wake will be one of the hit psychological thrillers of 2016. The reaction of early readers and reviewers to the initial e-book is stunning, as people quite rightly praise this twisty page-turning story about a woman who discovers a dark family secret and her quest for the shocking truth. But In Her Wake is so much more than a thrilling read: it is one of the most subtle and skilfully told novels I have ever read in this genre. Tonight, I have sat down and tried to figure out exactly how Amanda Jennings has managed to write something so effective and effecting, and to explain why you absolutely must read this book.
If this story had been written in a simple, linear timeframe and from just one point of view (POV), then In Her Wake would have been a good book. But Jennings goes from good to great by playing around with the timeline and POV, so that the reader sees fragments of the story told from the perspective of Bella and her parents, using a skilful combination of both present and past tense, flashbacks, dreams and letters. In this way, we learn that every single character in this novel is a victim – a shadow of what they could and should have been – were it not for the tragic events at the heart of the story.
We learn about each character as the author goes beyond mere ‘show don’t tell’, managing instead to hint and suggest, using the power of the white spaces between her cleverly chosen words. We know that Bella’s husband is controlling not because she tells us he is, but because everything he says is a statement. The one time he does ask his wife a question, he – shockingly and casually – ignores her answer. We know that another character is broken by grief, not because there are pages of weeping, but because his cardigan is no longer buttoned up properly.
Jennings is not a showy writer: there are no flowery paragraphs of description or flights of purple prose. Her writing is lean and sparse, the kind that is deceptively easy to read but oh so hard to write. I suspect that this is because Amanda Jennings’s super power is her ability to see people as they really are, in all their beautiful and tragic complexity. She displays this most powerfully in the way that she exposes the hidden role of carers, with an unflinching eye (and nose) for detail such as the tedious humility of weeing in front of somebody else, the cloying stench of tinned soup and the constant acts of nobility punctured by human frailty.
She also has a great ear for dialogue. Scenes that in a lesser writer could have been cheesy or over dramatic are brutally honest and believable. One of my all-time favourite lines is when one character screams: ‘I’ve looked after her for years and got nothing from her. You come back and within weeks she smiles and talks and eats f***ing rice.’
And as if that weren’t enough, Amanda Jennings manages to interweave legends of the sea and mermaids amongst this most contemporary of novels, with ghosts and imaginary friends, dreams and forgotten memories drifting like smoke from the pores of this book. These scenes are not self-indulgent darlings, but echoes from the very heart of a deeply layered story that resonate throughout the novel. It is only when you finish the book and go back to the beginning (and I strongly recommend that you do this), that you realise just how deep and tragic this story is, and the skill and care that Amanda Jennings has taken to tell it.
I am so grateful to Karen Sullivan at Orenda Books for responding to my shameless begging on twitter and sending me an e-version. Having read The Judas Scar, I was desperate to read this – so much so that I finally overcame my technophobia and downloaded a kindle app. I urge you to buy In Her Wake in whatever format you can, but please resist gulping this novel down (as I initially did), and instead take the time to savour the depth and skill with which it has been written. Amanda Jennings is a writer’s writer, and as an astute and compassionate observer of the human heart, has much to teach us all.