Lisa Jewell knows people. She knows her characters, and she knows her readers. That almost sounds insulting, if read in a sarcastic voice, so let me explain.
Towards the end of her latest novel, Jewell has Tom tell his son Freddie, ‘I’ve been watching you. All along. Watching everything you do.’ Tom has been watching Freddie. Freddie has been watching – and taking photos of – Jenna, and Bess, and Romola, and a bunch of other schoolgirls, plus Joey Mullen and Frances Tripp. Frances Tripp has been watching Tom and a whole bunch of other people. Jenna uses social media to track Bess when she thinks her best friend is in trouble. All that watching going on. Everyone is watching everyone else. But no one is seeing anything, because although all the information they need is buried in plain sight, their personal filters make them ignore it. All of the watching. None of the thinking.
That might be slightly unfair. Jewell creates three main characters who provide us with the main points of view (POV) as the story unfolds. We pretty much know that they didn’t do it (we don’t know for sure what ‘it’ is but we know there is an ‘it’), and Jewell is careful to present them as three-dimensional creations; they are not just there to move the plot along. Freddie wants to be a spy, Jenna wants to be carefree and Joey who is approaching her thirties wants to be an adult. Their worlds come together (of course, it’s a story) but at the beginning they are just doing what they are doing. In their observations, we enjoy the playful but incisive descriptions we’ve come to associate with Lisa Jewell: the sodium gloom of a January afternoon, a rather kind homage to the dad bod, the unsentimental but yet sympathetic description of teenagers:
Girls oozing through the gates, a river of royal blue and grey, idly tossed hair and Fjällräven rucksacks, laddered tights, Skinnydip phone cases and loud, loud voices.
This approach is of course essential for a successful psychological thriller. We don’t just need to know who, we need to know why. So we have to care about the characters more than we care about the mystery. On the whodunit, Jewell dangles clues that her more perceptive readers (ie. not this reader) will work out in good time: this is all in plain sight, remember; but as she does so she lets the three main POV characters develop and think and grow and perform small acts of kindness or self-discovery that help you begin to root for them. Other characters aren’t fleshed out in nearly the same way: Tom, the head teacher, is a far more ambiguous creation (and probably the better for it), and I feel sorry for Alfie, until I don’t. This helps Jewell play with our emotions and our assumptions – about the relationship between Tom and Nicola, for example.
I don’t know enough about mental health to say whether Frances’ condition is well portrayed, but the exploration of Asperger’s is I think carefully done.
I am slightly intrigued to know whether Lisa Jewell has fallen out with Martin Amis. Freddie is compiling a dossier, called The Melville Papers which seems to me to be a shout out to The Rachel Papers – but, towards the end, Amis’s first novel is mentioned for real. And Freddie’s later dossier is called The Information, a reference to Amis’s novel about two novelists enjoying different levels of success. I don’t think Jewell makes these references without due thought. She is certainly aware of how to play with the emotions of her readers. In the epilogue, she sets up a nice, quite-romantic coda to bring us down after the truth-spilling of the preceding pages before punching us with a new revelation that is as shocking as Rose’s gramophone adventures at the end of Brighton Rock.
Watching You is a story that will take you back to your teens. Told with style and with an all-too-human cast of characters, it’s a taut, psychological thriller which brings the reader in and gets them really involved.
UPDATE 1: Lisa has responded to what we might call the Martin Amis Question:
Thanks to Century for the review copy.