Why do we trust some people and not others? And are we necessarily wrong to act on our first instincts? What does it mean to be weird and when is it OK to be so and when should we take responsibility for our weirdness? This is what the new thriller from Lisa Jewell, Invisible Girl, is all about.
Invisible Girl is bookended (and bookstarted?) by two Lisa Jewell trademarks: a first person narrative from a strong teenage female lead, and a punchy twist in the last sentence that serves us right for lazily thinking that the final chapter denotes a happy ending. In between, there is a rollercoaster exploration of various power imbalances, presentations of abuse (both physical and emotional), a fairly incompetent police investigation and several betrayals of trust.
As usual with Jewell, we are presented with a rich cast of three-dimensional and flawed characters. Saffyre, the 17 year-old who goes missing; Cate, whose world revolves around her family and who finds their temporary home in swanky Hampstead discombobulating; Roan, the healer who pounds the local pavements; Georgia, teenager who ‘arrives with news and moods and announcements and atmospheres’; Owen, who everyone agrees is a creep, the antithesis of Roan except in that their names rhyme, a man who understands the inadequacies of London snow. They’re all good, solid characters: Owen is perhaps the most interesting as Jewell goes out of her way to make us sympathetic towards him, even when he is working through what we believe to be injustice by spending time on incel websites and meeting an incel activist. We can judge none of them on first impressions.
There’s a bit of a dip in the middle – probably necessary to prepare us for later on – but the longer the novel goes on, the more we realise its cleverness. We change our mind about each of the characters, in some cases more than once. People lie, some obviously, but some lie to themselves (which is handy given the device of first-person narration) and some of those whom we assume are lying are not, and vice versa. Occasionally we get to see both sides of a story and recognise that the truth is more complex. We continually question ourselves and we don’t get to sit smugly and assume that we are better and more sophisticated than some of the more gullible who sit within the novel’s pages. No one is who they seem. Are you, dear reader, asks Jewell.
There’s a lot of stalking: Saffyre in particular is watching Roan as did Cate ’til it all went wrong – I dig out my review on previous Jewell mystery Watching You and note that the clues there, as here, are all available to us. On that occasion, I used the phrase ‘hidden in plain sight’. It’s a phrase we often use, don’t we, when we’re talking about mysteries when the clues are really there, but that’s easy to say when we have everything set out for us on the page. Is it true to say that Saffyre (the eponymous girl) is hiding in plain sight? If you’re behind a hoodie or a balaclava, or looking out from a building site, your physique is not really obvious. No: what Lisa Jewell seems to be more interested in this time is our willingness to take things at face value. It’s why so much abuse has been done by people holding positions of trust, both formal positions in our community but also people who are meant to provide care. No spoilers, and all that, but my word Owen’s father and aunt are a disgrace. And there is darkness in this novel: not as much as in The Family Upstairs but there are a few pages which are more detailed than they might be, in particular as Saffyre’s back story is spelled out.
By the way, I don’t know what Camden Council has done to Lisa Jewell. She has both Cate and Roan visit the Branch Hill estate in Hampstead, a council estate built in the 1970s both notorious (even its defenders say it was probably the most expensive council housing ever) and gloriously modern. ‘A failed experiment’ say both Cate and Roan, which probably proves they deserve each other after all.* But this book is all about other sides to the story, so here is the counter-argument.
And we should acknowledge the role that the villages of north London play, as a usually-neutral, occasionally-malevolent backdrop.
For this is a book that requires there to be a community. Without that, we can’t organise media pile-ons, or wreck each other’s reputations. Reputations are all. Jewell gets us to question the means through which that happens.
The ending is good: there is redemption for most, though it has to be earned. But did I mention that final twist…?
* An obviously tongue-in-cheek statement. Don’t @ me.
Thanks to Random House for the review copy.