Many years ago, I was commissioned to write a reading guide for Joanna Briscoe’s Sleep with Me. Its perceptive exploration of desire and manipulation in a three-cornered relationship read like a modern take on Simone de Beauvoir’s She Came to Stay but with the page-turning pace of a thriller. I loved it. Hopes were high then for The Seduction, particularly as it’s quite some time since Briscoe’s last novel was published. This new one sees a woman seek a therapist’s help when her own adolescence comes back to haunt her, triggered by her daughter’s imminent thirteenth birthday.
Beth’s mother left her family when Beth was thirteen with no explanation throwing a long shadow over her daughter’s life. She’s the first person Beth thinks of when she gets a string of unidentified calls. An artist living with her photographer partner and their much-loved daughter with a circle of close and interesting friends, Beth appears happy yet she’s unsettled and anxious. Sol suggests she seeks therapy which she reluctantly does, worried about her relationship with an increasingly chippy Fern who’s keen to contact with her maternal grandmother. She’s referred to Dr Tamara Bywater who gradually draws out the story of her mother. As the therapy continues, Beth becomes intrigued by this woman with whom she seems to fit better than anyone else in her life, raising the prospect of friendship. At first Tamara demurs then puts her professional scruples aside telling Beth they must be discreet. Meanwhile, Fern has begun staying out late and arguing with her mother, accusing her of being distant and unloving. By the time their planned family trip to the States comes around, Beth is caught in the grips of a full blown obsession, heedless of anything else.
It took me a little while to get into The Seduction – a wee bit too much descriptive writing for me – but once its pace took off I was gripped. Briscoe’s novel explores manipulation, desire and power in relationships together with our old literary friend dark secrets, always pleasing territory when well done. She tells her story from Beth’s perspective, the loss of her mother so embedded in her that despite her apparently enviable life she’s full of self doubt: easy prey for a manipulative therapist. Its dramatic beginning sets up a thread of mystery pulled taut as the novel heads to its conclusion. Not quite as riveting as Sleep with Me but certainly an engrossing read. In this time of publication slippages thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, Briscoe’s novel shines out brightly as a piece of intelligent summer reading even if you’re unlikely to be reading it on the holiday you’d planned.
Bloomsbury Books: London 9781408873496 384 pages Hardback