Crime Scene: JAYE FORD Darkest Place. Reviewed by Karen Chisholm
Darkest Place is Australian thriller writer Jaye Ford’s fifth book of stand-alones involving women under threat who are definitely not victims.
In 2011 Jaye Ford released Beyond Fear, telling the story of a girls’ weekend away at an isolated country hideaway. When the girls find themselves held captive, threatened and beaten by their captors, it’s one of their own who manages to turn the tables and save them all. This idea of women under extreme threat managing to rescue themselves is a consistent theme in all of Ford’s novels.
Scared Yet? came out in 2012, moving the action from the country to the city, and from an ensemble cast to revolving around one average, conventional woman who suddenly finds herself in a fight for her life against an unknown assailant for no apparent reason. Here Ford really started to hit her straps, keeping the tension alive throughout, creating a chillingly believable scenario and a great central character it’s very easy for readers to connect with.
In 2013 Blood Secret took readers to a small Australian coastal town, a missing man, and again, a central female character who is flawed and very real. There are plenty of secrets built into what is again a clever plot with lots of fast-paced action.
Already Dead, released in 2014, was a stand-out novel. Starting in the city with a carjacking on a Sydney motorway, the sense of threat and danger experienced by central character Miranda Jack is segued elegantly into an exploration of PTSD and how it is affecting both Jack and her abductor Brendan Walsh in different ways. In moving between the seemingly normal and the extreme – Jack moving house, worrying about what inappropriate things will issue from the mouth of her small child in a cafe and the extremes of fear experienced by Walsh – the reader is left guessing all the way. The pace is unrelenting, and the characters feel real and make choices that are absolutely believable.
In 2016 Darkest Place becomes the latest in Ford’s novels to feature a woman in emotional turmoil, forced to defend herself against a threat that, this time, nobody else can respond to.
Carly Townsend has finally worked up the strength to move away from a fraught past to a new town and university, a new name and a completely new start. Her relief at the start of this life is short-lived when she awakes one night to find a stranger in the bedroom of her new apartment. When the police arrive there’s no sign of a break-in and they write this episode off as a crime of opportunity: an unlocked door, a momentary lapse that somebody took advantage of.
Carly’s emotional state before these events, and even more so as they continue, keeps the reader wrong-footed in the early sections. The police doubt her reports, her psychiatrist tries to offer rational explanations, and her new next-door neighbour seems sympathetic yet vaguely sinister. Suddenly everything around Carly starts to carry extra meaning:
She wants to scream. It’s building in her chest. Trapped there, scratching at her lungs as though her ribs are the bars holding it back. She hears breathing. Not her own. Deep and unhurried. It whispers across her face like a warm cloth. It turns her skin to ice. She lashes out. Hits, twists, kicks. She sees it in her mind, feels it in her muscles. But it doesn’t happen. She doesn’t move. Neither does he. She sees him now. A shape in the darkness. Above her, black and motionless.
The reader is frequently left unsure of whether Carly is the classic unreliable narrator, a feeling complicated by the possibility that she may also be behaving this way unconsciously as a result of her own past trauma. Because it’s also not clear what these nocturnal visits are designed to achieve, or what this mysterious figure is doing, there’s much in this novel that raises questions – but not so much as to make it feel manipulative or staged.
The setting of Darkest Place is perfectly sinister as well, with the carefully crafted environment of a refurbished old warehouse complex creating a place that is architecturally open, light and bright, yet quiet, isolating and off-putting:
Staircases zigzagged upwards, suspended walkways connected the landings, and a forest of old timber columns still supported the first floor. Standing at the bottom, Carly felt like she was at the base of a labyrinth.
There are people moving through this space but many are private, or a little odd, frequently wrapped up in their own lives. There are moments of lightness when friendships start to form, counter-balanced by that unknown threat, right up to the point that somebody dies and Carly realises that she is pretty much on her own when it comes to solving what she thinks is definitely real and very dangerous.
Even allowing that the reader is never really sure if Carly is on the level, there’s something extremely endearing about her as a character. Perhaps it’s because she’s as aware as the reader that there could be something very wrong about her version of reality:
She didn’t want a man breaking into her apartment and she didn’t want to be crazy. But a dream?
It’s particularly interesting to note the way that the author has created a closed-in environment in a larger city (which really could be any city, anywhere). As Carly moves between the warehouse centre and the university at which she studies, there is very little outside action. Everything in her life quickly centres around these two places and the connections between them, and her interactions with anybody else are tightly coupled to these sites. This further adds to the tension, creating an insulated little world where everybody is an insider and every insider becomes suspect. Whether it’s the next-door neighbour, the man she mostly comes across in the foyer or the lift, or the caretaker, every man in the story seems to loom into view in a way that wrong-foots Carly every time.
That wrong-footing is at the core of just about everything in Darkest Place. From the way that Carly interacts with the people and places of her present, the way she processes her past, and the ultimate solution to the entire puzzle, everything is about making darn sure you watch your feet as much as your back.
Jaye Ford Darkest Place Bantam PB 2016 $32.99
Karen Chisholm blogs from http://www.austcrimefiction.org, where she posts book reviews well as author biographies.
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