Book Review: Undertow


Undertow, by Elizabeth Heathcote, is a psychological thriller with an intriguing synopsis, a gripping opening chapter, an acceptable enough denouement, but a plot and character development that just didn’t do it for me. The manner in which the protagonist acted too often lacked plausibility, as did the reaction she encountered from certain minor characters. I struggled to maintain engagement.

Carmen is married to Tom. They both have a history. Prior to meeting her husband, Carmen had been with Nick for fifteen years. Shortly after they split up, due to Nick’s unfaithfulness, the struggling actor got his big break and is now living the celebrity lifestyle in LA. Tom’s background is a part of his and Carmen’s everyday life. He has regular contact with his three children from a twelve year marriage to Laura. However, it is not Laura and the children who his latest wife has difficulty dealing with but the memory of Zena, a beautiful young woman Tom had an affair with, who he left his family for, and who subsequently died in a drowning accident close to their coastal holiday home.

Carmen and Tom had told each other of their pasts when they met. Their romance led to marriage within months and they are trying for a baby. It is only when Carmen starts to learn of the circumstances surrounding Zena’s death that she becomes aware there is much Tom has not shared. He has not, for instance, told her that he was supected of causing his lover’s death.

Carmen is a freelance journalist struggling to find work so her desire to dig out the facts and her doggedness in approaching those who may have known Zena can be explained. What I struggled with was marrying this side of her character with the prevarications she displayed. I perceived too many contradictions in aspects of her behaviour.

Carmen did not wish to believe that Tom could be a murderer as it would shatter the illusions she had created of their happy life together. She was, however, aware that he had a temper that could lead to violence. Her drug addict step brother, Kieran, was with them when Tom attacked a man and left him for dead on a night out. Kieran has, understandably, disliked Tom since.

Carmen cold calls strangers and asks them about Zena. She approaches the victim support officer at the police station which dealt with Zena’s death. I was surprised at how open these strangers were to Carmen’s questions. She pieces together much of what happened the evening Zena went missing. She also meets the woman who found the body washed up on the beach several days later, a neighbour at the holiday home which Tom still owns.

It all slotted together and provided a plot that twisted and turned. For me though it lacked clarity and depth. I was hunting for excuses as to how Carmen could realistically behave in one way and then another. For example:

  • Would a young, professional journalist really not know how to clear the browsing history on a computer? Such a device is an important tool of their trade.
  • She was suspicious enough of Tom to actively investigate his past. I find it hard to comprehend that a woman in love would consider her husband capable of murder, and remain with him if she did.
  • She must have realised it was foolish to let Nick stay the night. Tom had proven himself devious in his previous marriage so would understand how affairs happen. He has also demonstrated violent jealousy, and she still suspects him culpable in Zena’s death.

Laura appeared largely believable until the penultimate events, which struck me as at odds to what had gone before. Tom’s character was more comprehensible. It was, however, Carmen whose varied thoughts and actions I struggled to align.

In writing any negative review I feel I am being harsh on the author. No reader is going to enjoy every book they read. I have tried to explain my reaction in the hope that it will prove useful to future readers. This is not a book I can recommend.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Quercus.