In 1996, Josephine is on track to achieve great things. She’s Head Girl at her elite boarding school, her father works with the Prime Minister and her chances of going to Oxford are high. However, she’s under tremendous pressure, and hanging out with her best friend Freya is the only chance she gets to relax. Freya is the one person who can tease out Josephine’s fun side, but their days of gossiping about boys, underage clubbing and secretly smoking in the woods are over if they want to get into Oxford. Josephine and Freya decide a final night of partying won’t hurt, but it badly backfires and changes the course of their lives.
Before Josephine knows it, 18 years have passed and she hasn’t spoken to Freya since everything spiraled out of control at school. She still tortures herself and keeps everyone at arm’s length because she can’t face her past. As an archaeologist, she knows better than anyone that things can’t always stay buried forever. When Freya contacts her out of the blue to talk about what happened that night, Josephine is plagued by paranoia, fear and anxiety.
The Exclusives highlights the intensely competitive nature of first-rate boarding schools and the destructive impact jealousy can have on people’s lives. Josephine’s determination and ambition sacrifice her emotional connections with those around her, and she ends up regretting this throughout her life.The narrative alternates between 1996 and 2014, slowly building up to Josephine’s revelations about that night. Very few concrete details are revealed, which is tantalising but sometimes frustrating, as it doesn’t feel as though the plot is moving forward. Luckily, Josephine is complex enough for readers to care about what’s happened in her life.
Despite her selfish, vindictive actions as a teenager, it’s nonetheless easy to sympathise with Josephine. Aside from the stress of academic achievement and Head Girl responsibilities, she has to worry about her mother’s declining mental health.
The most poignant aspect of Josephine’s story is her relationship with her parents. Rebecca Thornton skilfully writes about how the illness affects Josephine and her dad. Whenever they speak, the atmosphere is thick with unsaid things. They obviously want to communicate with one another but can’t, which is saddening. Josephine’s anguish also teaches us that revisiting painful parts of the past can be surprisingly liberating.
Although the plot takes time to progress, Rebecca Thornton has produced a solid debut novel with some compelling characters. I think it’s safe to say we’ll be seeing more from her in the future.
The Exclusives by Rebecca Thornton is out now in ebook (£3.99, Twenty 7) and is due to be published in paperback in April 2016.