Every crime novel is about power, I guess, and the extreme lengths people go to attain it. Penny Hancock’s The Darkening Hour is about what happens when one damaged person is given power over another. It’s a very timely novel about modern-slavery and exploitation, and how our own best intentions can warp and twist into something sinister.
Theodora Gentleman is a presenter on a radio stati is struggling to cope with the care of her father, who has dementia, and her estranged son. She employs a Morroccan woman called Mona to look after her father, and becomes very quickly to rely on her to clean the house and to cook. But the relationship between the two women becomes increasingly toxic and Theodora’s treatment of Mona quickly becomes exploitative, with violent consequences.
The story is told from the points-of-view of both women in alternating chapters. Hancock pulls out all the Dickensian stops – the novel begins with a panoramic snapshot of modern life in south-east London as Mona pushes the old man through the chaos of Deptford Market, two invisible people in the urban sprawl – to give us a plausible glimpse into how such a situation could come about.
The Darkening Hour is a very satisfying read and a great psychological thriller, and worked best for me when Dora was front and centre. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from reading crime fiction, it’s that the devil has all the best tunes, and Dora is a fabulous monster, but not so different from you and me,
Poor old deluded Dora is a monumental fuck-up, to be sure. A martyr to her family, she’s just trying to do her best. She’s a fragile beast, crippled by low self-esteem and anxious about her status, as problems pile up around her. Dora’s delusion and skewed sense of self-importance lead her to make some very poor decisions.
Hancock’s really good at prodding at all the unpleasant feelings inside of us, actually – the resentment, bitterness, jealousy, paranoia and overbearing pride – and seeing what happens when we let these negative emotions go unchecked.
Mona is a more ambiguous figure, and her hopes of finding her vanished husband in the city, and to send money home to her poor family, gives her story drive. But some interesting hard-edges to her character, like stealing items from her employer, sort of fade away as she begins to become more of a victim within the story.
The Darkening Hour is a slow burn. The middle section treads water a bit, I think, and there’s a cataclysmic incident that really would have ramped up the drama if it came earlier – I like a bit of melodrama, me. But the book works really well as a claustrophobic study of how a nice middle-class lady can begin to cross invisible lines and behave in an unspeakable way. Theodora’s descent to the darkside happens slowly, in small increments, like that poor frog boiling in a pan of water on a low heat.
What I liked: Physical description and dialogue are primary ways we get to know the characters in novels, but you can also get inside their heads in other ways, and Hancock accumulates detail really well. So Theodora lives in an elegant townhouse on a Georgian street surrounded by tower blocks and estates, giving a sense of her isolation. Her home is narrow and claustrophobic and, before the arrival of Mona, hopelessly untidy. Even her surname reflects an inherent sense of privilege.
Penny Hancock writes more about the inspiration for The Darkening Hour on her website — check that out. And remember, of course, you can scroll down to her Intel Interview below or, tell you what, you can click to it here.
Many thanks to Simon And Schuster for the review copy.