Despite its billing as a thriller, it was impossible for me to resist ex-bookseller Alice Slater’s debut. Set during the run up to Christmas, her hugely enjoyable novel follows Roach, who’s worked in the dingy Walthamstow branch of Spines for nine years, and Laura, one of three seasoned booksellers parachuted in with the aim of saving it from closure.
She will understand that we are not so different after all. We each have our story to tell.
Roach runs the true crime section and is obsessed by it. She attends performances by podcasters, buys the merchandise, searches the web for serial killers and reads nothing but the genre. Laura is the opposite. She lives alone in a flat carefully decked out in prettiness, rather like herself, and knows how to send customers out of the shop laden with purchases and happy. She, Sharona and Eli are old friends, experienced in helping to rescue failing branches together. Unlike Roach, she loathes true crime, writing poetry which seeks to honour murdered women not their murderers. Both women grew up in Walthamstow while the Stow Strangler was on the loose but while Roach seeks a connection, Laura will have nothing to do with this woman who seems the antithesis of herself. After Laura gives a poetry reading which the shop team attend, Roach becomes convinced she’s hiding something. Over the next three months, Roach’s stalking becomes ever more obsessive, and Laura begins to unravel.
I hate that her name will forever be associated with the man who killed her, and I hate that the world only remembers her as a chapter in the story of his life.
Slater alternates Roach’s and Laura’s narratives, Roach’s obsessive behaviour providing much of the tension as Laura’s careful control begins to crumble. Both are damaged in very different ways: Roach deals with her negligent upbringing and her desperate neediness with a snarky contempt for ‘normies’ while Laura’s carefully curated wardrobe, small treats and sunny exterior is a strategy for controlling the sharp pain of grief. It’s all very smartly done, and I loved its clever ending, but there’s a serious message underpinning Slater’s immersive novel with its concern about our obsession with crime, both true and fiction, and in particular violence against women. Impossible for me to be objective about this book, steeped in bookselling as it is. Despite having left that world quite some time ago, Slater made me feel as if it was only yesterday. Such an enjoyably nostalgic read, although I should point out nothing nefarious happened in my branch of Waterstones, at least while I worked there.
Hodder & Stoughton: London 9781529385328 384 pages Hardback (Read via NetGalley)