Fragile by Sarah Hilary

Everything she touches breaks… Nell Ballard is a runaway. A former foster child with a dark secret she is desperately trying to keep, all Nell wants is to find a place she can belong. So when a job comes up at Starling Villas, home to the enigmatic Robin Wilder, she seizes the opportunity with both hands. But her new lodgings may not be the safe haven that she was hoping for. Her employer lives by a set of rigid rules and she soon sees he is hiding secrets of his own. But is Nell’s arrival at the Villas really the coincidence it seems? After all, she knows more than most how fragile people can be – and how easy they can be to break…

Connections are important and valuable, and my Nordic / Scandi connections often appear in completely unexpected places… I could have searched for them in Sarah Hilary’s standalone stunning novel; however, there is no need for big explorations. What matters is that relationships and interactions, and lack of the real deep meaningful links between people, are universal. Human condition in all its shades. In Fragile Hilary created a hypnotic and claustrophobic world into which we are invited via the front door of the Starling Villas. Reluctantly we follow a runaway foster girl, or rather a young woman, Nell on the brink of discovering how her own upbringing and life experience might, or not, fit in the real world. Of course, the realism of the new life contrasts with the skewed authenticity of what she had known. Nell escaped with her best friend Joe from the home in Wales, a place run by Megan, a woman not necessarily evil and malicious, but lacking empathy and understanding. Yet we are not quite sure whether we truly are within the realistic environment of an old London house, wedged between two modern buildings, and steeped in darkness and mystery, and owned by the enigmatic Dr Robin Wilder. Or is it all imagination? The cinematic quality of the writing, the gothic atmosphere of the location hiding many mysteries and uncomfortable rules, and the growing drama of creepiness make the novel so intense and gut-wrenching. Nell wants to belong, to be loved, to forget guilt of a terrible deed done by mistake, and feeling responsible for death of a little Rosie in Megan’s care, and at the same time she is not able to consciously express her emotions. And did she cause the tragic death? Did she use her body to survive the first weeks in London, to avoid tough existence on the streets? Will she be saved? And can she save Joe?

Fragile indeed presents fragility in many forms and brings this delicate state of feelings and reactions into our attention. It balances aspects of the real-life abuse and impacts on the young people in care who are not completely aware of their own paths in life, and struggle to process experiences that they have had, while subconsciously learning what love in many guises might mean, and whom to trust. Clashes between harsh brutal truth and Nell’s inner world take this story into the Victorian spectre of the difficult social issues such as homelessness, neglect, violence. Problems that have not vanished in spite of development of modern technology and apparent advances of social care. The intensity of feelings and the lingering sense of impending doom, beautifully and sensitively written plot, and weaving delicate Japanese motives into the quiet tragedy of shame, guilt and passion are outstanding. A dark psychological thriller to be savoured, with a nod to Rebecca and to Dickensian traditions.

Here you can listen to Sarah Hilary discussing the book with Dr Noir – Dr Jacky Collins in the series of interviews The Doctor will see you now

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