Book review: The Watcher by Ross Armstrong

Friday, December 30, 2016 Permalink

The backcover blurb on this book compares it to The Girl on the Train – which I guess is the post-Gone Girl benchmark for psychological thrillers. It is reminiscent of the popular book as we’re in the head of a narrator who may not be entirely reliable, trustworthy, or well… sane.

Although I wasn’t captivated immediately, I was most certainly intrigued – and occasionally confused (as I’m sure we’re meant to be) – as I wondered where Lily was leading us.

Book review: The Watcher by Ross ArmstrongThe Watcher
by Ross Armstrong
Published by Harlequin MIRA, MIRA
on December 29th 2016
Source: Harper Collins, NetGalley
Genres: Psychological Thriller
ISBN: 0008181187, 9780008192754
Pages: 370

Lily Gullick lives with her husband Aiden in a new-build flat opposite an estate which has been marked for demolition. A keen birdwatcher, she can't help spying on her neighbours.

Until one day Lily sees something suspicious through her binoculars and soon her elderly neighbour Jean is found dead. Lily, intrigued by the social divide in her local area as it becomes increasingly gentrified, knows that she has to act.

But her interference is not going unnoticed, and as she starts to get close to the truth, her own life comes under threat. But can Lily really trust everything she sees?

I should preface this by mentioning I received an early copy of this book. There were a lot of typos and the odd spelling mistake so it’s likely there were some changes before the final release.

This book is written in the guise of a letter from Lily to her father, so it’s written in second person.

The book’s intriguingly structured. Other than a prologue (which I found a tad irrelevant) the book leaps back in time to over a month before an ‘event’. Of course we don’t know what that is… because each day / section is prefaced as ‘42 days before it comes; 15 days before it comes‘. And so forth.

There was however a change to this 9 days before ‘it comes’ when Lily starts working forward – to fill us in on several days we missed. We later learn why she does this, but it’s initially a bit disconcerting, as is the occasional toing and froing from one day to the previous evening.

However, we quickly learn that Lily’s married and her husband, Aiden, is a writer and seemingly immersed in his own little world. As we meet them their relationship seems to be fracturing…

I’m not sure who he’s become. I barely recognise him. (16% through novel)*

Lily seems unenthused by her day job and her bird and neighbour watching becomes obsessive as she documents the movements of those around her.

And I’m alone. I’ve felt this loneliness before. But not for a long time. I think. It’s a particular type. A particular feeling. It’s got its own shade and colour. Yes. I’ve felt it before. In my muscles. (66% through novel)*

I struggled to visualise her surrounds, my only context the housing / council estates I’ve seen on British TV shows, but I gather she’s in an upwardly mobile development while many older buildings around her are being demolished to make room for more new apartment buildings. In many ways the circle of neighbouring buildings becomes her world. And after being in contact with a woman who’s murdered she finds herself Rear Windowing her neighbours in an attempt to solve the crime.

Armstrong offers up a lot of hints that all is not well in Lily’s world: her solicitous work colleagues and their off-hand comments; the police’s assertion that she’s a regular at the station; the gaps in her own memories; and her fear of ‘inheriting’ a mental illness.

I’m going to have to watch myself. My impulse control is getting very weak. The gap between think and do is almost nothing with me at the moment. I’m going to have to watch that. (35% through novel)*

I kinda guessed part of the twist and the motives behind the murder/s early in the novel. As does Lily I think, despite her reluctance. (Those who’ve read the book will have noted she gets distracted when listing potential motives…. with no. 5 surely being the most obvious.)

Readers are ultimately offered a resolution, which was okay, though I’m not a fan of the ubiquitous pre-conclusion scuffle / crisis we so often find in thrillers.

Being prone to overanalysis myself, I was quite interested in the themes Armstrong raises through Lily’s ruminations:

  • The fact that most murders are committed by people who know the victim – and if this is only because they’re the cases solved… with unrelated / unknown killers or psychopaths also acting out in large numbers… but just not caught (and therefore not included in statistics!).
  • The assertion of psychologists in the 1960s (Situationalists) – suggest ‘personalities’ as we perceive them, do not exist; rather our behaviour / choices (our personality) is a product of the situation we are put in, at that moment.

Armstrong easily integrates birdwatching terms into the novel, which makes sense given this is how Lily’s interest in people-watching grew… and it’s interesting how her ‘Birding’ studies and findings can be translated to the ‘real’ world.

Although I was – at times – unsure what I was reading (having learnt my lesson from the last book I read and realising it could evolve into something supernatural or similar) I really REALLY enjoyed Armstrong’s writing, and found Lily’s ponderings to be surprisingly insightful.

But anyway, you do say sorry. For what it’s worth. And it’s strange getting what you want sometimes. The earth doesn’t shift on its axis. Everything is the same. Life after a death. A butterfly flaps its wings and the world does fuck all.  (72% through novel)*

The Watcher by Ross Armstrong was published in Australia by Harper Collins and is now available.

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

* I read this on my iPad via my Kindle app so had no page numbers. (As an aside, I much prefer Bluefire Reader!)

  • Greg Hill
    January 1, 2017

    I sometimes like unreliable narrators and other times… not so much. and yeah *sigh* funny how every new thriller is the next Girl on the Train yadda yadda. Anyway this does sound good though, I’m intrigued by her police station visits and the mental illness overtones. And it sounds remarkably thought provoking too. Nice review, I’ll have to watch for this one since I’m on a psychological thriller kick lately.

    • Debbish
      January 2, 2017

      I thought it was well written Greg and – while we knew something was amiss – it was hard to work out exactly what it was!

  • Laurel-Rain Snow
    January 8, 2017

    Hmm, I am intrigued, but I also think the structure might annoy me at times, depending on how smoothly we move back and forth. I have added this one to my list. Thanks for sharing.

    • Debbish
      January 9, 2017

      I’m seeing it around quite a bit. It’s publishers are definitely pushing it here in Australia Laurel.

I'd love to hear your thoughts