The Family Remains, by Lisa Jewell – book review

When does a story really end? The Family Upstairs, a Lisa Jewell thriller, ended with many of the strands neatly tied up. Jewell, though, felt there was more to explore with this particular bunch of characters, and has broken a personal rule-of-thumb to produce this sequel, The Family Remains. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t too pleased with the news: I had remembered much of Upstairs being ‘almost unremittingly bleak’, but I enjoyed it far more on a second reading a month or so ago in preparation for Remains. Remains itself has an relentless pace, a startlingly improbable plot, two – count them, two – cold cases, and a multi-continental wild goose chase. And that’s just for starters.

Front cover of The Family Remains by Lisa Jewell

In Upstairs, teenage Henry was obsessed with teenage Phin. Twenty-five years since they last saw each other, Henry hasn’t moved on. Libby, Phin’s daughter, is going to Botswana to meet Phin (for the first time), and Henry’s invited himself along. But when Phin flees Africa rather than meet, Henry develops a hunch that the object of his obsession is now in Chicago. How hard can it be to find a man hiding in a city the size of Chicago, thinks Henry, and – fair play to him – he’s up for the task. Meanwhile, the skeleton of Birdie, a truly appalling character from Upstairs, has washed up in the Thames. Although Birdie died 25 years ago, her skeleton has been moved relatively recently, which points to murder. And if one unsolved murder wasn’t enough, Lucy’s ex-husband Michael (also killed in Upstairs) is back, in a subplot with a slightly different timeline. I wrote last time that Michael was a bit of a cardboard character. Here he is fully fleshed out in disgusting detail. If we were calling for him to get what was coming for him in the first book, we’re hollering it out this time.

There’s a lot going on here, but it’s not hard to follow: as is usual with Lisa Jewell, we have the range of tiny details that provide a kind of shorthand for us to relate to most of the characters. We always know where we are in the story. What I mean by that is that Jewell doesn’t overcomplicate with little games what is already a fast-moving plot. We hear directly from many of the characters (assuming they are telling the truth) and understand their dilemmas. We are rooting for almost all of them. Not Michael, obviously, and we’re not 100% about Henry either. All of the characters react to the cold case differently, and in Chicago the hunter becomes the hunted. All good fun.

This isn’t a light thriller though: no book involving a relationship based on deceit, or on the heartbreaking consequences of blackmail could be. In addition, there are examples of sacrifice and sadness, to balance the abuse that we saw in Upstairs. There’s a lot of justice being meted out in this novel, some of it by the police but none of it by the courts. DI Owusu is an interesting creation: an instinctive detective but one who’s able to understand the ambiguities of his remit. (I think that this is Jewell’s first police character, and I like what she’s done. More of Owusu, please.) There’s retribution, punishment and forgiveness, actions with long term consequences and actions with none. And then, wrapped round the book as a whole, much more deeply explored than in Upstairs, is the theme of belonging. The Lambs and the Thomsens form a sprawling, blended family, one borne in the terrible actions of 25 years ago. Can they, now, pull together?

I wrote in 2019 that I couldn’t recommend Upstairs for everyone thanks to its sheer grimness at times. But I am more than happy to suggest the Upstairs/Remains double bill, for those who like their thrillers human, fast, improbable and cinematic.

Thanks to Century for the review copy.

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