Friday 20 November 2015

The Drowning Lesson by Jane Shemilt

I had my doubts about this book in the opening pages as I couldn't quite warm to the main character and narrator. Emma Jordan is an obstetrician and mother of two young girls, Alice and Zoe. Husband, Adam, is also a doctor and their relationship is strained by the urge Emma feels to constantly compete with Adam career-wise. There is no doubt she is very good at what she does and there is little wonder she is driven when the story flips back to show glimpses of her relationship with her father. The drowning lesson of the title gives you a clue.
    Emma is one of those brilliant doctors who works with machine like accuracy but has something missing when it comes to relating to people: not remembering the name of the woman whose baby she has just delivered or noticing that Alice is suffering stress. When Adam plans a sabbatical year in Botswana, Emma is reluctant to take the time away from work to join him, but her falling unexpectedly pregnant and a problem with Alice at school help to change her mind.
   This back story is woven in with the terrible event at the start of the book when Emma arrives at their Botswana house to find her baby boy, Sam, has been abducted. A window has been smashed so it looks like strangers have taken the child who has a distinctive strawberry birthmark on his cheek.
    While the police are soon on the spot, there are hardly any leads and Emma's mind ranges over a variety of suspects: the nanny Teko, who turned up out of the blue and whom the girls took an instant liking to; Simon, the girls' tutor who has suddenly left the area; Adam's secretary, Megan, who had been overwhelmingly kind in arranging things from London, doesn't escape scrutiny either. Meanwhile the police question the elderly gardener and Alice becomes even more withdrawn and blames her mother for everything.
    The novel takes every woman's worst nightmare as the basis for a tense and gripping read. And while I found Emma a difficult character at first, that changed as the book progressed because she is really interesting. Adam and girls are also well rounded, coping or not coping in various ways.  The eventual solution to the mystery is only half the book as Emma learning that there is more to life than winning is a core part of the story. This could have been all rather obvious and clumsy, but Shemilt avoids these pitfalls - perhaps due to the spare, straightforward narration that suits Emma's developing character so well.
    While this might not have been my first choice of reading matter, once I'd picked it up it was hard to put down and I rattled through the final chapters. It would be a terrific TV drama series over several Sunday nights, too.

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