I’d seen reviews of this book popping up in a few places and was surprised it hadn’t been on my radar. Fortunately I was able to access an online review copy and meet established Australian author Wendy James – for the first time – in my case.
by Wendy James
Published by HarperCollins - AU
on May 20th 2019
Genres: Psychological Thriller
ISBN: 1460752384, 9781460752388
Eighteen-year-old Ellie Canning is found shivering and barely conscious on a country road, clad only in ill-fitting pyjamas. Her story of kidnap and escape quickly enthrals the nation: a middle-aged woman with a crazy old mother has held Ellie in a basement, chained her to a bed and given her drinks from an old baby's sippy cup. But who was this woman and what did she want with Ellie? And what other secrets might she hide?
When the accusation is levelled at local teacher Suzannah Wells, no one seems more bewildered than Suzannah herself ... to start with. The preposterous charge becomes manifestly more real as she loses her job and her friends. And the evidence is strong: a dementia-affected mother, a house with a basement, a sippy cup that belonged to her long-dead daughter. And Ellie Canning's DNA everywhere. As stories about Susannah's past emerge, even those closest to her begin to doubt she's innocent.
And Ellie? The media can't get enough of her. She's a girl-power icon, a social-media star. But is she telling the truth?
This book opens in the voice of Suzannah though we don’t know it at the time. The person is assessing Ellie’s online persona, wondering how it is they can’t tell if the young woman is lying or not. James does it cleverly though so we’re not certain if the voice is guilty of the accusations levelled against them.
We learn then, of Ellie’s escape and slowly (through interspersed true crime documentary type snippets) start to learn more about her kidnapping.
We spend most of the book inside the head of Suzannah. She’s certainly a likeable character though she’s got her secrets, skimming over certain aspects of her life… even with we readers.
She was a teenage soap opera star, we discover, before quitting that life to become a teacher. She’s hit a few snags in the road since then, the biggest her mother Mary recently re-entering her life 35+ years after Suzanne had last seen her.
Suzannah was raised by her grandparents while the heavy drinking, drug taking and possibly mentally-ill Mary appeared briefly at various intervals.
Now she’s living with her daughter while Suzannah waits for a place at a nearby nursing home to become available. Most assume Mary has dementia but Susannah explains it’s more likely Korsakoff’s syndrome – an alcohol related illness.
It has to be said though, Mary is a hoot. I mean, she would drive you bonkers if you had to look after her but she’s very much like a sweary and sexually explicit toddler. James does a great job of writing Mary’s character and gets a good balance between the things that make her daughter cringe and the occasional insightful observation. Young Mary must have been interesting when sober or capable of conversation and it’s obvious Suzannah knows little of the life her mother’s led.
Obviously this book is centred around the fallout of Ellie’s recovery and accusations. Initially the details of her ‘incarceration’ are scant. It seems to make no sense. Even the town gossips and school students can’t work out what the motive for her kidnapping could have been.
James takes us back to the months leading up to Ellie’s appearance. We meet Suzannah and Mary when they first arrive along with neighbours (celebrity agent Honor) and a potential love interest for Suzannah, Chip, as well as Suzannah’s school colleagues. Suzannah’s becoming relatively contented with her new life when Ellie is found and accusations start flying.
Ultimately this book becomes a he said / she said. (Well, she said / she said, in this instance.) We know from the beginning there must be a reason to suspect Ellie isn’t telling the truth – though in retrospect, it’s only from Suzannah’s perspective we’re offered that opinion.
But, we’ve gotten to know Suzannah and it seems unlikely. Doesn’t it? Why would Suzannah kidnap 18yr old Ellie? Alternatively, we’re forced to ask ourselves what motivation would Ellie have for lying and pointing a finger at Suzannah?
They obviously can’t both be telling the truth.
James paces this novel well, so we readers are fairly bamboozled by the time some twists are revealed. And I definitely didn’t see the who and why coming. I’m not sure it was completely believable as it seemed a bit extreme, but it’s definitely something that will come as a surprise.
The Accusation by Wendy James was published in Australia by Harper Collins and is now available.
I received an electronic copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.