Sharp Glass by Sarah Hilary


Since bringing her award-winning police procedural series featuring DI Marnie Rome to an end, English author Sarah Hilary has turned her attention to writing standalone works, like last year’s Black Thorn which won a five star review on this site.

This is a writer who mines the darkest depths of the human psyche to great effect and that consummate skill is on show in spades in Sharp Glass, a psychological thriller that goes so deep you might even need oxygen. Let’s meet Gwen Leonard, who makes a living by carefully packing up other people’s homes when they’re preparing for a move, and then unpacking them again at the new address.

Gwen is thorough and meticulous in her work, and prides herself at packing things so well that they inevitably arrive at their destination unscathed. But what may appear thorough and meticulous to some could be viewed as odd and bordering on the obsessive to others.

Either way, it is clear that Gwen enjoys putting things safely in boxes; ironic then that as we first make her acquaintance it is she who is in the box – a dark and dingy cellar in the Peak District, in fact, where she has been locked up by a man who seems keen to keep his distance. He is pretty thoughtful for a kidnapper though, having set the place up with a camping toilet, bottles of water and a bed, and he brings food to Gwen regularly – even soup in a Thermos, bless him. Those little domestic pleasantries shine through in a disturbing story that will keep you on the edge of your seat.

But what has brought this pair together? Ah, you’ve already got to the crux of the matter. The man remains silent, until one day he calls Gwen ‘Grace Maddox’, a name she denies ever having heard before. Up to now we are hearing everything from Gwen’s first person perspective, and as she obsessively writes lists and goes over things in her mind, again and again, we gradually begin to see the flaws in her story. By the end of part one of the book, it is plain to see that Gwen is no innocent victim.

Time for Hilary to turn the tables, shifting the focus to Dan, the abductor, with all the sleight of hand of a seasoned conjuror. Dan is a clever man with an important job, but when we finally meet him properly he is on the verge of mental collapse and struggling with his memory. It’s that memory loss issue that will shift the balance of power here – and suddenly Gwen’s star is in the ascendancy once more.

Or is that her real name? Ah, that would be telling, but suffice to say that Hilary holds all the cards and as she doles them out, little by little a disturbing narrative is revealed. Central to it is Elise Franklin, a Derbyshire Peak District teenager whose murderer has never been found. Both Gwen and Dan have connections to her, but which of the wildly differing viewpoints offers the true picture?

Sharp Glass is a densely constructed book, with the majority of the action taking place within the four walls of a house. It is dark and darkly disturbing as it reveals the back stories of our duo of protagonists, but within that unrelenting darkness there are also surprising little shards of humour. There’s an ebb and flow of emotions as each crumb of information is revealed and you’ll catch yourself loving each one in turn, then faltering and edging towards dislike, even hatred. Meanwhile, Hilary has her reader hooked, reeling us in like an angler with a fish in a fast-flowing river.

This is a deeper seated, more complex affair than Black Thorn, and its unrelenting sense of claustrophobia may not be every reader’s cup of tea – but if you like your psychological thrillers to wrong-foot you at every end and turn then Sharp Glass is a must-read.


CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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