The Safe Place by Anna Downes

Emily is a receptionist and an aspiring actress in London when her life falls abruptly apart. Fired from her job, dropped by her agent and kicked out of her disgusting flat all at once, she’s at her very lowest point when her old boss Scott comes to her with a proposition: live in his French country home to help his wife renovate their guest house.

It sounds like a dream, and when Emily arrives, it truly is: a glorious, expansive estate with two houses, picturesque gardens, animals, and the beach right nearby. It’s also isolated, without any mobile reception, and there’s something in the main house that feels wrong. But Scott’s wife Nina is luminous, and their daughter Aurelia, while struggling with illness, is responsive to Emily. Life finally seems to be heading in a positive direction – as long as she follows the rules. And doesn’t look too closely behind the crumbling façade of either the property or Scott’s damaged family itself.

British crime has begun to feel very samey recently, but Anna Downes – who now lives in Australia – has brightened up the English psychological thriller and has written a captivating book that kept me intrigued. Emily, despite the flaws that make you despair for her, is an honest and palpably real companion to follow, as is Scott, who gets his own chapters that make you lean into the pages, trying to figure out what’s going on. With enough beautiful vistas to crack your heart right open, and a wide-eyed child to make it bleed, this is a satisfying and devastating debut.

Fiona Hardy is our monthly crime fiction columnist.

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The Safe Place

The Safe Place

Anna Downes

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