Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry is a riveting psychological thriller and a haunting exploration of the fierce love between two sisters, the distortions of grief, and the terrifying power of the past. It is nominated for an Edgar Award for Best First Novel.
Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry is up for an Edgar Award for Best First Novel, and what a well-deserved nomination indeed. Others have compared this novel to the wildly popular Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, and while there are some similarities—most particularly the unreliable narrator trope—its unique style of writing, which both obscures and reveals, creates its own path that sets it above others in an increasingly crowded field of psychological thrillers.
Our narrator Nora begins her story—told in close, first person present—by taking the train from London into the countryside to visit her sister, Rachel. Upon entering the house, however, she discovers the brutally murdered bodies of her sister and her sister’s dog. The imagery, some of the first we see in this novel, is disturbing and haunts both Nora and the reader throughout the rest of the book.
The present-tense prose is striking in its rarity and in its perfection for this story. Berry has the uncanny ability to make the story feel both intimate and distant at the same time. While we see events unfold basically as they happen, we feel that we’re part of the action to some degree—but at the same time, we only get to know what Nora lets us know. She’s not going to show us her real feelings about how everything goes down. Our only clues about her emotions, and what lies Nora might be telling both the reader and herself, are in the reactions of others around her. Interpreting events is like peeling back layers of an onion here. We are only told so much. For the rest, we need to read between the lines.
The front door is open, and two uniformed officers are standing in the corridor. One of them steps forward to stop me from entering. He pins my arms and drags me down to the road. A second officer, younger than the first, follows, saying, “He can’t hear you, he isn’t in there.”
The older officer releases me at the edge of the property. I recognize both men, detective constables from Abingdon, and know how weary of me they are, how beside the point it is for them to answer my questions.
“He isn’t here,” says the younger one. “You’re screaming for nothing.”
The reader remains off balance throughout the duration of the novel because, as readers, we’re used to being sure of our narrator. We normally trust that we’re being told the truth. And it’s a clever device to employ in a psychological thriller. Not only is the story messing with us, but so is the writing style. And it is absolutely brilliant.
Adding to that, the present-tense prose creates a sense of unease and foreboding because we can see that the narrator doesn’t know how things will end. There’s no reflection and no sense of certainty that Nora is going to survive these events. Anything could happen. We have no warning. No one is safe.
Under the Harrow serves as a thrilling reminder that safety is often taken for granted when a reader sits down with a new novel. It also reminds us that we tend to overlook the faults of the dead more than we do the living. And that the most damaging lies are often the ones we tell ourselves. Nora spend a good deal of time thinking about the past, and I certainly enjoyed the strange mixture of nostalgia and fear as she remembers a violent assault in Rachel’s past that led to Rachel’s obsession to find the perpetrator.
I remember her laughing at something, trying not to slop the wine from her glass as she threw a stick for Fenno. Greenfinches flew between the trees. The dog raised a paw in silhouette, like a dog from the unicorn tapestries, with the embroidered woods behind him. I remember thinking that this isn’t the newest moment in history but the oldest, that time isn’t thinning, but thickening.
It is so easy to think about her. Each memory links to another one, and time doesn’t seem to pass at all. I sit for hours remembering, until the first commuters, unbearably sad, begin to arrive, waiting in the darkness on the platform for the early train to London.
Nora picks up the threads of Rachel’s secret quest as she starts to uncover the truth about what Rachel has been doing over the past few years, and it leads to some dark and dangerous territory. This novel is like a boulder rolling down a hill. Events are set in motion as Nora disturbs the tranquility of this sleepy countryside town. Too many truths are revealed, and too many lives are forever changed as it all comes crashing together in a stunning finale.
Flynn Berry is a powerhouse. With a debut this good, I’d expect to see her name alongside Tana French, Gillian Flynn, and Paula Hawkins as another rising star of the psychological thriller.
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Ardi Alspach was born in Florida, raised in South Carolina, and now resides in New York City with her cat and an apartment full of books. By day, she's a publicist, and by night, she's a freelance writer. You can follow her on Twitter at @ardyceelaine or check out her website at ardyceelaine.wordpress.com.