Disclaimer, by Renee Knight, is a brooding thriller with an undercurrent of malevolence that oozes from each page. The clipped sentences and short chapters suggest as much as they say. The feeling of unease that the prose evokes is unrelenting.
The story opens with the protagonist, Catherine, realising that a book she has found by her bedside is about her. Not only is it about her, it is about a period in her life that she has kept secret for twenty years. She cannot remember how she acquired the book as, having just moved house, her possessions are in disarray. She cannot understand how anyone could know a secret she has never divulged. She wonders if she is being watched. Her new home no longer feels safe.
Catherine’s story unfolds alongside that of the author of the mysterious book. Stephen is a widower, a retired teacher. Their parallel tales introduce the reader to characters who appear ordinary on the outside but who have, in their past, acted in ways that hint at flaws. Could Stephen’s interest in his former pupils have been unsavoury? Is Catherine a selfish schemer who cared more for herself than her child? The drip feed of snippets, incidents and apparent facts are reminiscent of the tabloid press. Having sown doubt in the reader’s mind the story moves on, aware that what has been placed cannot now be forgotten.
The slow reveal encourages sympathy for each character’s predicament followed by renewed judgement as further details are exposed. Just as Catherine’s family are manipulated by Stephen’s scheming so the reader is manipulated by the author’s economy of context. It is hard to know what to think or what the truth may be. I turned each page eager to find out.
Right up to the denouement I was impressed by this tale. I was intrigued, engaged, deliciously drawn into the fictional world. Such a shame then that I felt let down by the finale. I loved the summing up by Catherine of her feelings towards her husband when the full version of the truth became known. The last chapter felt slower after the throbbing power of all that had gone before but I was waiting for the twist. When it came it felt limp.
It is still a well written book. The premise may seem a little far fetched but it is an interesting one to explore. The dissection of marriage and parenthood is telling: the spin we put on the actions of loved ones in order to cope with their shortcomings; how quick we are to judge others with just a scattering of facts; the speed with which we translate what is happening around us in order to protect our own self esteem.
Such themes add depth but it is the strength of the plot that kept me turning the pages. An intriguing twist on secrets, revenge and the fragility of the lives we put so much effort into constructing. When memory is selective and translated through a filter of ongoing experience, how well can we know anyone, including ourselves?
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Doubleday, thanks to a twitter competition run by LaChouett (@ChouettBlog).