This moody, emotionally unsettling murder mystery is set in Funnland, an amusement park on the edge of the seaside town of Whitmouth. In a landscape where crime, murder and public drunkenness punctuate the delicate scrim of daily life, cleaner Amber Gordon discovers the body of a girl in the mirror maze, half lying with her head and shoulders pressed against the wall. Given the horrid nature of the crime and the fact that Amber thinks she has the perfect lover, an orderly office and a secure home, the discovery of the girl does little to assuage her exasperated and regretful nature.
As the investigation unfolds, Marwood yanks the coverlet from the unmade bed of human nature, exposing the stains, cigarette burns and secrets from a world that gleams (on the surface, at least) with hygiene and the scent of chemical lemon. There’s a darker sense of judgment where death is abnormal yet also familiar. While the aftermath of Whitmouth’s serial murderer casts a pall over much of the landscape of the novel, Amber’s emotional descent into hell becomes the real highlight after she accidentally reconnects with her old mate Kirsty Lindsay.
Kirsty has come to Whitmouth to research the murders; here she runs into Amber while trying to gain access to the crime scene. Both women find themselves thrust back into the memory of the girls they once were: Jade, a girl from the wrong end of the tracks, and her well-to-do accomplice Bel, forced to shoulder much of the blame for a heinous crime when they were twelve-year-old girls. Renamed Child F and Child M by an establishment that swung into high gear to protect them, both girls have a scarring need to prove themselves. Rehabilitated through treatment, Kirsty has been able to rise above her obvious limitations. Not so poor Amber, who with her “weather-beaten skin, brassy cropped hair and stained polyester overalls” can literally taste all of the bitterness and unfairness of life so far.
The author takes what in less capable hands, could be a tabloid gore-fest—the murder of a four-year-old by two young girls—and offers us an insightful portrayal of those involved in the case, both then and now. By intertwining the lives of both Bel and Jade and Amber and Kirsty, Marwood does not seek to provide easy answers to the notion of criminal rehabilitation. Instead, she forces us to question a number of issues surrounding the women, from the frailties of the UK justice system to the lust for public blood-letting in such cases and, more widely, the manipulation of the facts by the media and the failure of society as a whole to protect its most vulnerable.
The plot itself is multilayered, the elements woven into a complex pattern of character and place. Evil Martin Bagshawe, with his “air of sex with a predatory edge,” clearly doesn’t understand the world in which he lives. Amber’s best friend, Jackie Jacob—reedy, weak and slutty—ultimately gets her comeuppance. Amber’s kindly co-worker Blessed, who struggles with life as a single mother, takes to Amber because only Amber knows that her son lacks the gadgets his peers take for granted. Marwood’s brilliant descriptions of Whitmouth, so typical of these English seaside towns, provide an integral backdrop to the story: “the mile of brown shingle and a silent rollercoaster, and a run-down pier with bright-decked fast-food stalls.”
Narrative tension is maintained superbly throughout with chapter after chapter offering the reader tantalizing hints of the dramatic impact their past will have on Amber and Kirsty. As Kirsty follows the trail of clues to the murders (and well-placed flashbacks show us earlier events), we unravel the emotional and psychological fallout amid the crumbling, plastic fast-food shop fronts and the stressed lives of a largely itinerant population. Marwood captures the essence of Whitmouth with its lack of glamour, contempt for aspiration and ceaselessly changing and unobservant funhouse crowd.
Marwood’s prose is by turns searing and poetic, with chapter upon chapter exposing the flawed humanity of her characters: from unfulfilled Amber to her boyfriend, sexy, handsome Vic Cantrell, at once brutal and duplicitous, to Kirsty’s loyal, loving husband Jim. As a woman coming to understand the cost and necessity of ruthlessness, Amber reveals a character of such intimate resonance and understated power that we have no idea that the final punch has been thrown until we find ourselves bent over and breathless.