The Family Upstairs, by Lisa Jewell – book review

Let’s start with the easy bits. The Family Upstairs is another stand-out domestic thriller from Lisa Jewell. It’s a tale that is compelling and twisty. It holds the attention of the reader long after they have come to the end. It’s about power, and survival, and recovering, and not recovering. It describes battles of wills. And it features Jewell pushing the boundaries of the genre, playing with form and function and purposefully blending frothy language with altogether darker themes. 

cover of The Family UpstairsWe experience the story through three voices and across two effective timelines: a first person narrator, an everywoman outsider and a woman whose identity is unclear until the last few pages. The tale is the mystery of a house in Chelsea in which three dead bodies and a very much alive baby are found. In the preceding years, a dull upper class family of four had become a dysfunctional community of eleven: a commune gone wrong evocative (oddly) of Animal Farm in its deception and multiple betrayals. How could this happen and what has occurred since?

Technically, this novel is outstanding. Jewell manipulates us readers by allowing us to trust (or not) the three narrators. And the three threads of the narrative weave together and apart, allowing us to contrast and compare, and to consider their reliability and honesty. The shifting sands reflect the key moments of the novel, in which power moves between individuals in a household, both through decisive episodes but also the steady rhythms of oppression over time.

It’s hard to say much more without straying the wrong side of the spoiler line, but I found the second half of the book almost unremittingly bleak. By this time conditions inside the Chelsea house have deteriorated well beyond normal acceptable behaviour. You are compelled to continue to read, but it’s desperately sad stuff. We assume that at least one person who was a child during the commune has gone on to be equally mistreated in the outside world.

What keeps us going is the characters: with the exception of Everywoman, we revel in the ambiguities we’re given. We’re forced to pick sides, especially when fire meets fire. There’s only one truly cardboard character – the shallow abuser Michael – and in his case we feel that Jewell has had rather too much fun creating him. That said, I think it would have been interesting to explore the character of the antagonist, David, in more detail, How had he become what he became?

An unpredictable psychological and domestic thriller, incredibly thoughtful and carefully crafted, though the grimness of some of the events described mean I can’t recommend it for everyone.

Thanks to Century for the review copy


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