Caroline Mitchell: The Village

It is January. Still winter. In some places the never-ending snow firmly keeps hold of nature and people but the days are getting longer. The nights are slowly losing their power and more light be will appearing soon. It is also January in Caroline Mitchell’s latest book, the chilling psychological thriller The Village where the main protagonist Naomi Ward hopes to discover the truth behind strange events which had happened a decade ago. It is actually much more than ‘hopes’. She has been obsessed by the case for years, especially in her professional role as a crime journalist, and feels compelled to solve it. She is prepared to leave her metropolitan London life and move to a small quiet village of Nighbrook in the New Forest. Why exactly there? Ten years ago Martin and Susan Harper, and their daughter Grace, disappeared without the trace. Their deserted cottage was left with the water running, lights on, Disney cartoons on the TV, the oven prepared for baking some special cookies. They could have gone out to check on their dog, or maybe to make a quick visit to the neighbours… but the doors to the property were locked from the inside. Overnight, the sleepy Nighbrook community became notorious as the scene of the unsolved mystery of the last decade, an epicentre for macabre media speculations. Yet nothing explained the events. Police found no bodies and no evidence of any deaths. Local people were and continue to be reluctant to even mention the past. Weil of silence covers everything and if a visitor or a newcomer dares to breach the subject, the welcoming chat immediately turns into distrust.

Ivy Cottage is no longer a crime scene. Instead, it lost its dramatic magic and difficult love, as we find out later, and was sometimes rented and eventually put on the market by Susan’s sister, also desperate to find the truth, and rejected by the locals. Naomi could not resist putting in an offer. And that’s where she’s headed now with her own family. Her husband Ed has no idea about the house’s mysterious history. Her teenage stepdaughter Morgan does and in fact decides to add this information to her own repertoire of methods to taunt and torment her stepmother. Because Naomi has only fairly recently married Ed which left Morgan resentful, reeling from anger and wanting to return to Scotland where her mother Harmony lives. Harmony, however, is far from being a harmonious balanced parent. Does it feel complicated? Yes, of course it does. Hence the mechanics of the Wards moving into the house from where the other family had vanished add a layer of ambiguity and tension to the narrative.

Settling down does not seems easy at all, and Naomi soon realises that they are not wanted there. When Ed heads north to Scotland to help with search for his unstable ex-wife who yet again got lost somewhere, Naomi and Morgan are left together alone in the Ivy Cottage. In their own ways they both try to deal with the hostile environment and understand that the location and the history of their new home might not bring calm and balance to their lives. Naomi is shocked by the unfriendly treatment she receives from Joanne who runs a coffee shop and initially wanted to help Naomi to set up her cake-baking business. Morgan starts a delicate friendship with Dawn, another restless teenager eager to escape the village’s protective claws. Unpleasant little things happen and eventually the current reality becomes too dangerous for the main players in this story. Told from different perspectives and interspersing thoughts and flashbacks to the past, the fate of Harpers, and especially the young disabled Grace, became painfully clear and poignantly sad.  

The Village’s atmosphere reminded me so much of the dark Scandinavian settings. Weather and mood complement each other in the suffocating place. Short tense days, long unsettling nights. The location of the cottage in the dark, apparently impenetrable forest which of course was relatively easy to navigate for all those who knew it or were allowed to move freely. Policeman Lloyd Thomas, vicar Father Humphries, and other pillars of the community keeping control of the village. And in that centre of darkness lives were difficult, shaped by decisions that cannot be rationally justified, and by demons of addiction, shame, regret and disappointment. As the novel was coming to its shocking conclusion, I felt the story was taking me to the fictional Scandinavian heroine Saga Norén, the main protagonist of the Danish / Swedish TV series The Bridge (Bron/ Broen). That realisation made perfect sense in terms of skewed morality and sense of being a victim, and yet it fitted perfectly in the villagers’ mentality. The physical map of Nighbrook might appear simple, pointing to the main places such as church, police station, coffee shop, main street. However, the emotional web of connections and secrets would look just as twisted as those famous incident boards seen at the police stations where the red strings connect everyone in the unbreakable net of secrets.

‘In the forest, everybody owned a gun. It was a way of keeping the vermin at bay.’

Caroline Mitchell took the locked room concept into another level: the fragile and devastated locked village, with its conflicted characters and engaging studies of relationships within the community tied together by a tragedy of lies, love and deceit.

The Village, published by Thomas & Mercer, is out this January 2022. Thank you FMcM Associates for the copy of the book and the invitation to join the blog tour.

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