Book Review

The Long, Long Afternoon by Inga Vesper

Yesterday, I kissed my husband for the last time . . .

It’s the summer of 1959, and the well-trimmed lawns of Sunnylakes, California, wilt under the sun. At some point during the long, long afternoon, Joyce Haney, wife, mother, vanishes from her home, leaving behind two terrified children and a bloodstain on the kitchen floor.

While the Haney’s neighbours get busy organising search parties, it is Ruby Wright, the family’s ‘help’, who may hold the key to this unsettling mystery. Ruby knows more about the secrets behind Sunnylakes’ starched curtains than anyone, and it isn’t long before the detective in charge of the case wants her help. But what might it cost her to get involved? In these long hot summer afternoons, simmering with lies, mistrust and prejudice, it could only take one spark for this whole ‘perfect’ world to set alight…

A beguiling, deeply atmospheric debut novel from the cracked heart of the American Dream, The Long, Long Afternoon is at once a page-turning mystery and an intoxicating vision of the ways in which women everywhere are diminished, silenced and ultimately under-estimated.

What an absolutely fantastic novel this is! I thoroughly enjoyed it and was instantly caught up in the lives of the characters.  There’s an intriguing mystery at its heart, but it also offers a social commentary on American life in the 1950s, exploring the lives of women in particular. 

The Long, Long Afternoon is predominantly told from the perspectives of Ruby and Mike.  Ruby is “the help” – a cleaner and general dogsbody for the residents of Sunnylakes, and boy do they like to remind her of her place.  Ruby is the standout character of the novel for me.  I love her wit and intelligence, and feel that she’s a good person who’s simply trying to do their best against the odds.  Set at a time of racial segregation, Ruby’s character highlights the inequality and prejudice faced by many – we see how she is treated by the families of Sunnylakes and the way in which she becomes a suspect in Joyce’s disappearance simply for being present when the police arrive.  The injustice is keenly felt, and Ruby makes it clear that it’s simply par for the course for the time in which it’s set.

Mike is the detective working the case, and seems to be a man who is somewhat ahead of his time.  He is sympathetic to Ruby – unusually so, based upon the other officers’ attitudes – and is the only one to treat her as a key witness rather than a suspect.  Finding himself unable to infiltrate the lives of those who knew Joyce, he requests Ruby’s help, understanding that she knows a lot more than any of her employers realise.  Ruby is understandably reluctant, and yet keen to help Joyce who is one of the few who is nice to her and treats her as a human, and so begins something of an unlikely partnership. 

There are also occasional chapters told from Joyce’s perspective.  These work well to gradually reveal what happened prior to her disappearance, providing additional clues for the reader as to what happened as well as revealing whether Mike and Ruby are along the right lines in their investigation and assumptions.  While this helps to develop the mystery involved, Joyce also offers the reader an insight into the life of an American housewife in the late 1950s.  It’s a bleak situation.  Relegated to house and home, few are in paid work, and many are taking various prescribed substances to “even their moods” as well as helping them to maintain a trim waistline. There’s seemingly little time for hobbies, and overall it felt to me that these women could have stepped directly out of Ira Levin’s Stepford and into Inga Vesper’s Sunnylakes.  The novel does touch upon the women’s liberation movement, and there are signs of things starting to change, although it’s clear that significant shifts are still a way off.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Long, Long Afternoon.  It’s an intriguing mystery, but one that also explores the time in which it’s set, highlighting the inequality – in various forms – that was rampant at the time.  Highly recommended.

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