Their children are friends first. They hit it off immediately, as kids do. And so the parents are forced to get to know each other. Three wildly different couples. Three marriages, floundering.
There are barbecues, dinner parties, a holiday in Greece. An affair begins, resentments flare, and despite it all the three women become closer.
Unnoticed, their children run wild. The couples are so busy watching each other that they forget to watch their children.
Until tragedy strikes.
Because while they have been looking the other way, evil has crept into their safe little world and every parent’s biggest nightmare is about to come true…
The narrative of Little Friends begins with Eve, who offers to provide tuition to a small number of dyslexic children to help support their development. The children are reluctant at first – you can almost hear the sighs at the thought of additional schooling – and yet friendships are soon formed, with the younger children coming to admire Izzy, the oldest of those in attendance, in particular. As the children become closer, the adults also start to form their own friendships, and there are soon regular, wine-fuelled get-togethers and a joint family holiday. It all seems very pleasant and idyllic, and yet it’s clear from the beginning that things aren’t quite as they seem.
Little Friends is told from the perspective of Eve, Grace, and Melissa, the three mothers involved. Through them, the reader is introduced to three very different families, each dysfunctional in their own way. Each of these women evokes sympathy, albeit for quite different reasons, and while Grace was the standout character for me, I enjoyed all three perspectives. Grace met Martin in her native Zimbabwe, and supported him while he wrote his Booker Prize winning novel. Their intention was to switch roles to allow Grace to write her own novel, and yet this somehow never happened. Now, Grace works as a hotel receptionist and writes after her husband and children have gone to bed while Martin doesn’t seem to do much at all. I love how fierce a character Grace is. She knows what it is to be an outsider, but holds her head up high throughout.
Eve is quite different. Relatively well off, she bears all the hallmarks of a bored housewife. She and her husband Eric have a sizeable family home set in a plot of land, and she encourages her children to roam and explore while she cooks and bakes, ensuring that her family has the best homemade food. For Eve, this is her idea of a perfect childhood, even though it’s not necessarily what her own children want. While she seems content, it’s clear that Eric – never the most loquacious – only speaks to her when necessary, and Eve’s choices in this novel are understandable if not condonable. Melissa’s perspective is the most difficult to read, as she suffers regularly at the hands of her controlling and abusive husband, Paul. Melissa has had plenty of practice at hiding the evidence of this abuse with make-up, scarves, and carefully chosen clothing, and the other couples aren’t aware of what Melissa is subjected to, seeing only a woman who is a little too concerned with her weight and who is perhaps a little timid at times.
With the adults so focussed upon each other, the children – ranging in age from 3 to 13 – run wild on Eve’s land, inventing games, getting muddy, falling out and making up again, all while the adults are eating, drinking, and making merry. It’s clear from the outset that something happens, and the only questions for the reader are what form that tragedy will take and what the cause of it will be. When it happens, it’s shocking and heart-breaking in equal measure. As the novel progressed, I had an idea of where it was going, or so I thought, but while there were elements of the plot that I worked out, there were other parts that I got very wrong. Shemilt has delivered a fantastically clever novel with some wonderful twists, and I read most of it during a single day as I wanted to know what was going on.
Little Friends was published by Penguin on 20 February. Many thanks to the publisher and to Sriya Varadharajan for the early review copy and the opportunity to join the blog tour.
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