If you are a woman in a thriller, there are a number of things that it is unwise to do: getting into a vehicle in a multi-storey car park without checking the back seat; coming home on a dark night and locking yourself in without first putting the light on, and living alone in a house that is in any way isolated are chief amongst them. Lisa makes the third mistake. Then she makes it worse by living in that isolated house with her sick five year old daughter, Anouk. Nicely ensconced as a vulnerable target deep in the Dutch countryside, Lisa goes out one sunny Monday afternoon in September to hang the laundry in her garden, and her life changes forever.
As she works, a man suddenly appears from behind the flapping sheets. There is something wrong about him that makes her scared; she runs for the house, but is not fast enough and he forces his way in with her. The man seems agitated, and with good reason. Over the course of the next few days, as he keeps Lisa and Anouk prisoners within their own home, we discover that this man is Mick Kreuger, a psychiatric prisoner who has escaped while inexplicably being taken on a day release by only one member of staff despite his history of violent crime. Lisa’s hopes are raised by the appearance of a woman’s face at the window of her house, peering in, but as the hours pass and the police still do not come, she begins to wonder what has happened to the stranger and just what she needs to do to keep herself and her daughter alive.
Safe As Houses is the first novel by bestselling Dutch author Simone van der Vlugt to be published in the UK – under the original title Blauw Water it apparently has sold over one million copies in Holland. The press release I have also states that it is a prize-winning novel, yet curiously does not state what prize it has won. I do enjoy a good thriller, and I like discovering new authors, so I sat down to read this book with curiosity. However, I finished it feeling a little disappointed. To be honest, it felt like I was reading the literary equivalent of an ITV drama: a decent enough story idea, but watered down with intermittently stiff dialogue, characters that did not come well to life, and a genuine lack of threat or tension. I found that I did not really care what happened to Lisa and Anouk, which is never going to make for an involving read.
The novel is also unusually written in the third person present tense, which threw me a bit. I imagine that van der Vlugt chose this style to make the story seem more immediate, but to me this just felt uncomfortable and awkward the whole way through, which probably contributed to my sense of disappointment. I have been trying to put my finger on exactly why it didn’t work for me, but I couldn’t really say whether it was do with the quality of the writing or if it was simply something lost in translation. Whatever it was, I found it a barrier to becoming lost in the story and something of an effort to read.
Although it wasn’t my sort of book, as a short (262 pages of reasonably large type), fast-paced read, I imagine that Safe As Houses will have plenty of appeal to readers looking for an undemanding holiday read. As I like my reads, even the holiday ones, to be a bit more challenging, I rather doubt that I will be reading another van der Vlugt novel, however.
Not recommended, I’m afraid.
Safe As Houses by Simone van der Vlugt (translation by Michele Hutchison)
Published by Canongate, July 2013
With thanks to the publisher for providing me with this review copy.
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