The Hand That Feeds You by A.J. Rich

I’m never sure about the idea of two authors collaborating to write – surely, there would just be constant fighting about where to put commas? – but from the first few pages of this book I was immediately compelled: together Amy Hempel and Jill Ciment create a personal, immersive writing style that feels akin to travelling alongside a character as they work out what is happening, instead of watching them, popcorn-in-hand, while they blast through the world hurling wisecracks (which, don’t get me wrong, is also an excellent literary choice).

Even as protagonist Morgan Prager – student of victimology, soft touch when it comes to sad-looking dogs, and newly minted fiancée – comes home to find Bennett, the man she loves, mauled to death by her three beloved pets, it’s a gruesome scene that breaks your heart rather than makes you cover your eyes. And when she recovers from that discovery enough to leave the hospital she’s been put in to try and find his parents and break the news to them, Morgan cannot find them. They do not exist, and neither does Bennett, apparently: no one by that name had his job or lived his life where he told her. Now feeling dejected as well as guilty, Morgan’s investigation into Bennett’s deception leads her to others he has targeted – and the realisation that not everyone survived his ruse.

Following Morgan as she pulls at the threads of their life together is an unsettling experience, raising questions about the notion of responsibility, and how you expect those around you to respond when your pets savage another person. It’s also unnerving that as a reader you find yourself with a surprising desire to see some big ol’ gentle puppies saved from certain execution by a savvy lawyer even after you find out – in detail – what they did to Bennett.

It’s a chilling skill these authors have: using the most attractive of writing to hide the most unpleasant of scenes.

Fiona Hardy