The Housekeeper by Suellen Dainty is a nuanced and nail-biting psychological thriller about the dark recesses of the human mind and the dangerous consequences of long-buried secrets.
In the introduction to The Housekeeper, Suellen Dainty challenges her readers by questioning the canard that a neat house leads to a productive life:
What is it about cooking and cleaning that seems to iron away (at least temporarily) even the most overwhelming of anxieties? Time and again, in those moments when my life starts feeling out of hand, I have found myself drafting to-do lists, scrubbing dirty dishes, and wiping down every surface I can reach. But does trying to impose order on external surroundings really quell our inner demons?
Sous-chef Anne Morgan, the heroine of The Housekeeper, has a life that has gone seriously awry. Dumped by her chef boyfriend of two years, she’s jobless, demoralized, and increasingly dependent on the cheerful, life-changing daily platitudes of house-management seer Emma Helmsley. The unconscious mind can sometimes foretell that life is about to spin out of control—Anne’s nights are disturbing.
The sheet was dotted with spots of blood. I must have scratched myself during the night again. My pillow was clammy with perspiration and my quilt was twisted around my legs like a straitjacket. A prick of nerves ran along my spine. I thought I’d gotten over all that.
Given Anne’s night terrors and unsettled life, is it any wonder that she is drawn to household and time-management gurus? She seeks, “Order, Discipline. A place for everything and everything in its place.” The Housekeeper opens with the thoughts of the most important household management writer of all time: Mrs. Beeton.
What moved me, in the first instance, to attempt a work like this, was the discomfort and suffering which I had seen brought upon men and women by household mismanagement
—Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, 1861
It’s a riposte to Suellen Dainty’s query: “But does trying to impose order on external surroundings really quell our inner demons?” It seems that quite the opposite may prove true—when newly-hired housekeeper Anne Morgan uncovers and begins to clean up the messy detritus of the Emma Helmsley household (Emma being the Martha Stewart of England), the “dangerous consequences of long-buried secrets” unfurl. Dainty delicately but implacably lays the groundwork of The Housekeeper’s crucial examination: how does the past impact our present and future.
Emma said that often when people were scared about the future or lacking confidence in their jobs, they retreated into the childish part of themselves, the time when they were scared of the dark or frightened to be on their own. That was a mistake, said Emma. It held you back and stopped you from being happy. She wanted people to imagine one part of themselves as a nurturing parent, someone who would take care of the other part of themselves who was an unhappy child. This made me think of my own early years with Gran and the unremembered time before that. I’d never been keen to play psychological detective games with my own past, and people who droned on about their childhood invariably bored me.
The mystery of her past is an arena that Anne returns to again and again, particularly as she segues from avid Emma Helmsley fan to a member of the household. Emma and her writer husband Rob are savvy media professionals, very busy and, as Anne discovers, very much in need of an efficient, meticulous housekeeper. Suellen Dainty captures their essence in a devastating sketch.
Both of them had the untroubled, slightly vacant look that I associated with effortless superiority and moneyed ease. Together they were more attractive than apart. Rob’s darkness made Emma’s fair skin and hair less bland and predictable, and her pale, fine features lightened what might otherwise have been a sallow cast to his face. He moved towards her and touched her shoulder. It was an affectionate gesture, but not an intimate one; just enough to make me feel an outsider.
That outsider status is the crux of being a servant, isn’t it? Mrs. Beeton states that, “The housekeeper must consider herself as the immediate representative of her mistress,” but silently, behind the scenes, a keeper of “messy little secrets.” As secrets emerge, The Housekeeper imperceptibly shifts into psychological thriller mode. Dainty’s precise details of everyday life enrich a psychological canvas for a story that’s impossible to put down.
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Janet Webb aka @janetnorcal has unpredictable opinions on books. Season ticket holder of the Oakland Athletics baseball team. Social media devotee. Stories on royals and politics catch my eye. Ottawa born. Grew up on the books of Helen MacInnes, Mary Stewart, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Anne Perry … I'm always looking for a great new mystery series.
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