How far would you go to protect the people you love? Would you lie and mislead investigations? Would you break laws and, at the very far end of the cover-up spectrum, commit a crime yourself? T. A. Cotterell’s What Alice Knew asks those questions, as a wife is forced into the impossible situation of going to the police or protecting her family by keeping a secret that threatens to tear them apart.

Alice Sheahan is the wife at the centre of this tale of crime and morals. She’s a successful portrait artist with the perfect life. She has two well-adjusted children, a respected obstetrician husband, comfortable finances and a nice house. She has everything she could ever want and no reason to distrust the man she married. That is until her husband, Ed, doesn’t return home one night, and when he eventually reappears his story about where he was and why he went missing seems suspicious.

An odd phone call pushes Alice into suspecting that there’s more to Ed’s story than he’s letting on, and when she uncovers the truth – fairly early on in the book – she doesn’t know what to do with it. Does she serve her husband up to the police on a silver platter, or does she protect him, and thus protect her family. With a prompt reveal of the actual incident, the story becomes less about what happened the night Ed went missing, and more about one woman’s moral dilemma, and how long she can keep up such a massive lie.

“When, as someone who has always obeyed the law – the odd university joint or no bike lights aside – you step outside it, you enter the unknown, a place with thinner air, taller shadows, weaker sun. Life doesn’t just ‘go on’ as the cliche has it. The clocks are reset, relationships are recalibrated.”

Cotterell’s debut is an intriguing crime mystery that blends elements of psychological suspense and marital drama, as Alice doubts everything she thought she knew about her husband, her marriage and, ultimately, herself. She’s a woman who lives a privileged life and her work as an artist means that she’s selfish without realising it. She constantly flitters between wanting to do the right thing and wanting to hold her life together, whilst outside forces attempt to get to the truth and make an example out of her well-to-do family.

Anger, betrayal and remorse slowly eat away at Alice, but is she driven by the knowledge that it’s her duty to uphold the law, or is she more motivated by how Ed’s out-of-character actions negatively reflect on their relationship? We never veer away from Alice’s thoughts and as such, the novel feels slightly limited and insular in its viewpoint. Giving more of the story from Ed’s male perspective, or even the dogged detectives trying to coerce Alice and Ed into slipping up, would have given the story a broader and perhaps more thrilling scope. Yet it doesn’t take away from the emotional impact of the book.

Having read History of Art at Cambridge, Cotterell uses his knowledge and love of art to build a brilliant picture of an artist and their thought process. Alice finds her creativity stifled by the secrets she’s being forced to keep, and this is what propels her towards the shock end that’s impossible to anticipate. If you read this thinking you know where the story is going to go, just you wait. What Alice Knew is a tale of what it means to be a woman, a wife, a mother, a daughter, a sister and an artist. But more than anything, it’s a story of humanity, in all its ugliness and beauty, and the things people are willing to do for the ones they love.

★★★★

What Alice Knew was published by Black Swan on 4 May 2017 

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