In brief: Emily has hit rock bottom. No job and soon nowhere to live – why wouldn’t she jump at the chance to be an assistant to a family at a remote French location? But soon Emily realises that the family is locked in a prison of their own – and nobody can escape.
The good: A very taut thriller with some emotional moments.
The not-so-good: Characters that you like turning out to have a dark side.
Why I chose it: Excellent reviews and winter is the perfect time for thrillers. Thanks to Affirm Press for the copy.
Publisher: Affirm Press
Setting: London and France
Rating: 9 out of 10
The Safe Place really defines the essential ingredients required for a top-notch thriller – tension, desperation and the growing apprehension that things are nowhere near where they seem. Added bonuses are characters that you come to care about, even with serious flaws and a beautiful location. Anna Downes has created a brilliant debut novel that can’t be put down.
Emily, the main character, is a big mess when introduced to the reader. She’s a failing actress, failed temporary secretary and soon to be homeless. She doesn’t get along with her parents nor does she have any real friends. It’s (un)fortunate that she catches the eye of her former boss, who knows that she would be absolutely perfect for a role he has at a luxurious estate in France. It’s helping out his wife with some renovation work and acting as a general PA. The unfortunate part is that Scott knows that Emily is desperate, so she will keep any secrets she discovers in France. At first, living on a beautiful estate with Nina and her daughter Aurelia is perfection. Sure, there is work, but Emily and Nina become kind-of friends and there is a never-ending wine cellar. Then Emily starts to notice things that don’t make sense. A funny smell…Aurelia’s reactions to events…the way life doesn’t exist outside the estate… Can Emily figure out how to leave safely or are the stakes much higher?
The characters in The Safe Place are deeply flawed and somewhat unlikeable but they grow on you. Emily is helpless, having messed up pretty much everything in her life and looking to Scott as some kind of saviour. Scott isn’t your usual successful CEO as he hides a world of pain, some inflicted by his wife and others stemming from earlier events. Sometimes it appears that he does have it all under control but at other times he’s just as helpless as Emily. What separates the two is Scott’s endless ability to charm, cajole and appear like everything is under control. Nina is much more of an enigma with her strict rules, yet overtures of friendship towards Emily. Her protectiveness towards her daughter seems extreme, but given Aurelia’s condition, it could be justified. In a way, Nina is like Emily. Both have been saved by Scott but Nina is much more independent.
The growing sense of unease underlying the progression of the story is exquisite. It’s just enough to keep the reader wondering and thinking, ‘just one more chapter’. The finale is great, not too rushed with multiple plot points that turn up the drama even further. Anna Downes has given the reading world a fantastically chilling debut. I can’t wait to read more of her work.