I try to avoid the hype that surrounds the publication of a new book. There is so much talk about how it’s the book of the year/decade/century that, as readers, our expectations are elevated beyond reason. There are sample chapters available, reviews and blogs, all whetting our appetite, making our fingers itch and persuading us to pre-order. For me, the problem with this is that by the time I get to read the book, I am expecting to find one of the greatest works of literature in English – which is a lot to lay on any book! Inevitably, this ends in a sinking disappointment, which is rarely anything to do with the quality of the writing or the talent of the author. I like to begin a book knowing as little about it as possible and invariably, I end up enjoying it much more.
Addicted as I am to Twitter, this attempt to avoid the hype of publication is futile. My Twitter feed is filled with literary related content because it’s the thing I am most interested in. So, when the publication of a new book begins to pepper my timeline, it registers with me and I spend weeks trying not to read too much about it until I can get my hands on a copy and decide for myself. All this brings me to the rather stunning debut novel Disclaimer by Renee Knight. Disclaimer popped up on Twitter a while back and the premise struck me as unique and intriguing so I desperately tried to ignore all the tired Gone Girl and slightly fresher Girl On The Train references until I could get my hands on a copy. I was not disappointed.
The protagonist, Catherine Ravenscroft, appears to have it all: a successful career and a solid marriage to a loving husband. Disclaimer opens as Catherine and her husband move to a smaller property now their grown son has left home. Amongst the chaos of half un-packed boxes, Catherine discovers a book entitled ‘The Perfect Stranger’ which she doesn’t recall having bought or being given. Inside the front cover, there is a disclaimer: ‘Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.’ Intriguingly, this has been crossed out in red pen.
As Catherine begins to read, her life is quickly unravelled about her. ‘The Perfect Stranger’ is her story. Not the Catherine that the rest of the world knows, but a story that no-one knows – or so she thought. In chillingly intimate detail, the author of ‘The Perfect Stranger’ has written a damning account of an event in Catherine’s life that she has kept buried for twenty years. The implications of the book are horrifying, particularly when she discovers that a copy has also been given to her son.
The cracks in the facade that is Catherine’s life quickly become evident and Renee Knight handles the pacing with aplomb. The art of thriller writing comes in knowing when to deliver the punches. Make the reader wait too long and momentum is lost, deliver it too early and the tension is lost. Knight delivers her first punch at exactly the right moment and she goes on punching, each one perfectly timed. Using two different narrative perspectives, Knight creates characters and voices that are human, fallible and sometimes downright frightening. The switch between past and present tense enhances the novel’s pace where, in less capable hands, it could simply have confused.
I am a notoriously slow reader, but I could not put Disclaimer down. I read it while standing in a queue, I read it while cooking dinner – I even read it while walking up stairs (not recommended). Each punch spurring me on for the next one. By the time I turned the last page, I was reeling from it. If there’s one thing that will stay with me above all else though, it’s that truth is a difficult thing to get at and everyone has their own version of it.
I’m aware that I am now contributing to the hype, but for what it’s worth, Disclaimer is a book that deserves its hype and one that will stay with you for a good while after you finish it