The Sick Rose – Erin Kelly

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I’ve always loved psychological thrillers that take us deep inside unstable minds, and Erin Kelly’s The Sick Rose delivers as the story of two damaged people who meet in desperate circumstances, to cling to each other for comfort.

It’s the tale of Paul, a young man who has been relocated by the police to help renovate an Elizabethan mansion while he waits to testify against his only friend in a trial. There, he meets Louisa, a reclusive woman who has spent her life running from a disasterous relationship two decades ago. Louisa has spent her life moving from one renovation project to another, keeping her head down and mourning the death of her obsessive love, musician Adam Glasslake.

Inevitably, Louisa forms a relationship with Paul, who has an uncanny likeness to Adam, but their violent pasts catch up with them and… well, you know the drill, bad things happen.

I admire novels which take me inside the muddled heads of different characters – Paul and Louisa are as different as you can get: Paul is a nice estate kid, who finds himself in an unfortunate position; Louisa, a damaged brat from a privileged background in West London  – who are thrown together with calamitous results. I love the accumulation of detail in The Sick Rose, and the way the story unfolds steadily, picking up a dread momentum.

It makes me wonder how just how writers like Kelly, who specialize in carefully creating detailed characters with intricate, very real, backstories, set about their fastidious task. Louisa, in particular, is not a particularly likeable character, but we get to know her very well, and to invest in her and Paul’s unlikely happiness. But these things never end well – where’s the joy in that? – and the sense of menace and foreboding that looms over their future is palpable. Reading The Sick Rose is like watching a car crash in slow-motion.

What I liked: Novels are all about unfinished business. Much of The Sick Rose is presented in flashback, but all the way through there’s that sense of uneasiness, and psychological thrillers feed on unresolved tensions and emotions. Louisa cannot rid herself of the past, and Adam’s abrupt death, and Paul is facing the sickening task of testifying against his former friend. If The Sick Rose is mostly a study in these two characters and their odd relationship, what keeps us turning the pages is the desire to know how this unfinished business is going to play out…

And what about you? When you’re writing, how far do you get to know your characters? Do you know everything about them, or think you do, or when you start writing, do they still have the ability to surprise you?

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