Book review: The Family Remains by Lisa Jewell

Sunday, July 3, 2022 Permalink

I hadn’t realised new release The Family Remains by Lisa Jewell was a sequel to the popular The Family Upstairs, published in 2019.

I’ve not read all of Jewell’s books but had read that one and one of our narrators was offering a bit of a recap and I thought, “That sounds familiar…” before going onto Goodreads to discover this was – in fact – a follow-up. I think – in all honesty – it works better having read the original. I didn’t remember the details but (reading my old review and some others on Goodreads) helped remind me of the backstory.

Having said that, I think you’ll be not-entirely-lost if you haven’t read its predecessor, as much of this novel is less about what happened in the past (even though it involves an investigation into a murder at the time), than it is about events unfolding in the present. Shaped by the past, but – given 25-26 years have gone by – much has changed anyway.

Book review: The Family Remains by Lisa JewellThe Family Remains
by Lisa Jewell
Series: The Family Upstairs #2
Published by Century
on 05/07/2022
Source: Penguin Random House Australia
Genres: Thriller / Suspense
ISBN: 1529125804
Pages: 448

LONDON. Early morning, June 2019: on the foreshore of the river Thames, a bag of bones is discovered. Human bones.

DCI Samuel Owusu is called to the scene and quickly sends the bag for forensic examination. The bones are those of a young woman, killed by a blow to the head many years ago.

Also inside the bag is a trail of clues, in particular the seeds of a rare tree which lead DCI Owusu back to a mansion in Chelsea where, nearly thirty years previously, three people lay dead in a kitchen, and a baby waited upstairs for someone to pick her up.

The clues point forward too to a brother and sister in Chicago searching for the only person who can make sense of their pasts.

In my review of The Family Upstairs I mentioned that it’s a book of intrigue, rather than an edge-of-your-seat thriller. Its sequel involves a little more suspense.

I note that neither this nor the blurb of the predecessor provide much context plot-wise (neither does my review as it happens!) so for those playing catch-up…

In The Family Upstairs


In the first book we meet Henry (Jr) and his sister Lucy and parents Henry (Sr) and Martina Lamb who have a #blessed life and live in a huge house in London in the mid 1980s.

Martina – who was a tad eccentric, took in a young pop star (Birdie) and her boyfriend as well as another man (David) and his wife and two children (Phineas and Clemency). Slowly but surely, David supported by Birdie, took over the house and controlled everything and everyone in it.

Five years after the interlopers arrived the police discovered a baby in a cot along with three dead bodies. No one knew what’d taken place in the house, though it was assumed to be some sort of cult that culminated in mass suicide, and the other children who’d lived there were gone.

We then learned that the two Lamb children – now in their late 30s and early 40s – were alive and (mostly) well, and Jewell times the reveals of past events (dipping in and out of the present), perfectly.

Back to The Family Remains..

Here we’re reminded that Henry Jr – our main narrator, in the present in first person – was obsessed with David’s son Phineas when young. Unhealthily so. And now Phineas resurfaced all of these years later Henry’s sister Lucy – is worried about what Henry might do if he locates him.

The backcover blurb focuses on the remains found in the banks of the Thames but – though we spend some time with DI  Samuel Owusu – we already know what we need to about his victim so it feels like Samuel’s just  playing catch-up. And the fact that the murder took place in 1996 means there’s no sense of urgency. I think we knew ‘who’ murdered Birdie at the time, but we know someone knew the body existed and moved it recently. So it can only be one of those still alive today. It’d normally be an intriguing mystery but given everything that happened in that house, it falls a little flat all of these years later.

So, though Samuel’s plodding along in the background, this is far more about Henry’s search for Finn (as he’s now called) and Lucy’s search for Henry. I enjoyed this storyline in particular, the way they both pieced together clues… though Lucy is predominantly helped by her son Marco.

Jewell does a great job in this thread of leaving readers at the edge of the cliff and then distracting us with Samuel’s investigation.  The past and present finally meet and it seems there will be justice for Birdie – who from all accounts kinda got what she deserved so it’s sad to think others will continue to pay for her involvement in earlier events.

A lot of the reviews I read of this book’s predecessor complain about the number of characters introduced. Jewell includes a list at the beginning of this novel, but the list is actually of those those we met in outing #1 rather than here. Some (Finn’s sister and mother, for example) are irrelevant here.

I almost forgot – and I wonder if that means it was a bit redundant – that there’s a third narrator here, in two different timeframes. Rachel, a jewellery designer, who marries Lucy’s first husband. I’d not remembered anything about Michael from the first novel, but there’s an early reference to Lucy having killed him. I enjoyed the plot around Rachel and Michael, but I’m not sure it added anything to this book other than unneeded complexity (particularly given it took place in the past). It could almost have been a novel in itself, though perhaps that story’s been told before: the abusive and duplicitous husband and unsuspecting wife.

So, while I very much enjoyed the exploits of Henry in Chicago and then those of Lucy on his tail, I feel like Jewell’s tried to do too much here. I think that some of this could have been trimmed (dare I suggest the entire plot lines around Birdie’s body AND the inclusion of Rachel and Michael) and I would still have been contented.

The Family Remains by Lisa Jewell will be published in Australia by Penguin Random House (Century) on 5 July 2022.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes. 


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