Ruby is isolated and dissatisfied with her life. Her only real social interaction is at work. However, most of her colleagues at the library have problems of their own, and Ruby likes to detach herself from the others, sitting in the staff room on a chair by the window, looking out across the park opposite. The working environment is a microcosm of society, reflecting many of it's ills, and Ruby appears to want to distance herself from that world. Indeed, given the opportunity, she spends most of her days independently in the archive, immersing herself in the minutia of the everyday lives of the people who inhabited the local manor, Kite House, during the culminating years of the nineteenth century. It's a welcome relief. Here she can escape from the workplace undercurrent of aberrant husbands and the machinations of illicit love affairs. It's also a release from the uncomfortable knowledge that a pervert prowls the town, seeking unattended washing lines decorated with bunting of woman's underwear.
As the plot progresses we are given a view of humanity's underbelly as seen through Ruby's eyes. The narrative drawing the reader into Ruby's world with well-rounded characters and expertly crafted atmospherics of place. However, all the while there is a pervading suspicion that Ruby is guarding a distasteful secret herself. It's an uneasy equilibrium, and when a police detective visits the library one day and starts asking questions, Ruby is toppled from her precarious pedestal.
Helen Slavin has divided her novel into two distinct halves, and it is a very effective way in which to tell Ruby's story. The first section builds to create a multi-threaded mystery which, in itself, is the consequence of the frightening tale that unfolds over the passage of the second-half. Gradually you'll begin to realise the immense danger of Ruby's situation. And as the tension ratchets up, and blackness engulfs Ruby's past, you'll struggle alongside her, willing her to resist the overwhelming sense of the futility of resisting.
Perhaps the only reservation I have is that the 50/50 split structure tends to rupture the narrative and the chasm is only gradually fused back into a single whole.
Carefully avoiding titillation and sensationalism, the author’s unique approach gives fresh insight into sensitive themes that will be familiar to many readers. This definitely isn’t an all-is-wonderful, sunshine and blue sky novel. If you like an emotionally challenging book, I definitely recommend it.