White Bodies by Jane Robins

The Blurb On The Back:

Callie loves Tilda.

She’s her sister, after all.  And she’s beautiful and successful.

Tilda loves Felix.

He’s her husband.  Successful and charismatic, he is also controlling, suspicious and, possibly, dangerous.

Still, Tilda loves Felix.

And Callie loves Tilda.  Very, very much.

So she’s made a deal to save her.  But the cost could destroy them both … 

You can order White Bodies by Jane Robins from Amazon UK, or Waterstone’s.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

It’s spring 2017.  27-year-old Callie Farrow works part-time in a book shop in Willesden Green owned by Daphne (who successfully self-publishes cosy mysteries).  Shy and lacking in confidence, Callie’s only real friend is her twin sister Tilda, an actress who enjoyed a lot of success in a TV remake of REBECCA and who is now looking for her next role.  The two like to get together each week at Callie’s flat in Curzon Street, Mayfair to watch old black and white thrillers and catch up over a few glasses of something alcoholic.

Then Tilda meets Felix Nordberg who runs a hedge fund.  Felix is intelligent, rich and charming and at first Callie likes him and thinks he’s good for her slightly flighty and emotional sister.  But the more Callie spends time with them, the more she sees evidence of Felix’s controlling personality and the more she worries that in private, he’s a very different man to her sister.  A besotted Tilda, though, agrees to marry him and refuses to listen to Tilda’s concerns, which drives a wedge between them until that autumn, when Felix is found dead in his room at a Berkshire hotel where he’s attending a conference.  

The postmortem says that Felix’s death was due to a previously undiagnosed heart condition.  Callie, however, suspects foul play – not least because she had her own reasons for wanting Felix dead and would have done anything to protect her sister …

Jane Robins’s psychological thriller is a tedious, silly affair that poorly uses the serious subject of controlling male behaviour.  The lacklustre plot is far too easy to guess and isn’t helped by an alienating main character whose personality ‘quirks’ include eating things that belong to her fundamentally unpleasant sister and who never acts in a believable or rational way (to the extent that at one point I thought she was special needs).

I picked this up because I really liked the idea of a psychological thriller based on someone witnessing their sister enter into a controlling relationship and being at a loss as to how to help them.  Unfortunately, this isn’t the book that I was hoping for.

The book literally opens with Felix’s death and sets up the idea that Callie knows something the authorities don’t know.  This is a promising idea that Robins then wastes for the rest of the book as she switches the focus to the relationship between the sisters, using time shifts back to their childhood to help build their relationship.  This is supposed to highlight the dysfunctional nature of Callie’s relationship with her twin and help the reader to realise that she may be an unreliable narrator.  

The problem is that Callie is such a weird, alienating character that it was very difficult for me to understand (let alone relate) to her behaviour (such as eating her sister’s baby teeth or lipstick), which in turn meant that I didn’t believe in her enough to care about what she’s trying to do.  For example, at no point in the book does Robins give Callie a real life friend to talk to about her concerns – she’s completely isolated to the extent that she doesn’t even talk with her mother about her concerns (even though at one point we’re told that Callie’s mother has reservations about Tilda marrying Felix).  Robins seems to suggest that this lack of friendship is down to Callie being shy, and yet she isn’t so reserved as to rebuff the approaches of estate agent WIlf and it’s pretty obvious that it’s all part of the set up to explain why Callie becomes so obsessed with the controlling men website.  There’s a potentially interesting point here that Robins makes about how being part of a forum such as that can reinforce analysis and behaviour but the fact that it’s clearly there as a check box to take Callie onto the next plot development means that it doesn’t really go anywhere.  It also really annoyed me that Robins uses the website to highlight Callie’s naïveté – apparently she’s managed to reach the age of 27 in the internet age without realising that you don’t use your real name on a website or give details out that might allow people to track you down.  Robins might have been able to get away with this if we learned that Callie had some kind of educational or emotional issue, but she doesn’t – she’s just a really stupid and gullible woman whose old enough to know better. 

It isn’t helped either by the fact that Tilda is such a dislikable character – shallow, manipulative and narcissistic – to the point that I couldn’t get why Callie was so devoted to her, especially when she’s constantly dismissed and belittled in turn.  She’s one of those literary actresses whose sole success in a single TV drama has apparently made them rich enough to afford a flat in one of the most expensive areas of London and then do nothing else to support herself while looking for her next job.  She also a patent phoney who plays her sister like a violin and the fact that this is so obvious to the reader serves to rob the book a lot of its tension.  Feeding into it is the fact that Felix is thinly drawn and some of his personality traits (such as cling filming crockery) will spark an instant question for the reader and yet arouse nothing in the Callie.

The pacing was too slow for me, not helped by the time jumps and a lot of the scenes had me rolling my eyes, e.g. when Callie meets up with Scarlet from the Internet forums whose whole behaviour to date has been weird and abusive and who behaves in a weird and abusive way when they meet.  There’s no real tension in the developments and the conceit that Robins has by having Callie and Tilda watch and refer to classic thrillers such as STRANGERS ON A TRAIN or REBECCA or to writers like Patricia Highsmith and Jo Nesbo only serves to show how poor this is in comparison.  Every plot twist is telegraphed far too early on and even at the end, Robins has to resort to having Callie finally talk to the one person who can explain a key point to her, reinforcing everything that the reader has already guessed pages earlier.

The shame of this is that Robins uses the very real problem of controlling male behaviour to such cheap effect.  There are constant background references to women being stalked and abused by controlling and violent male partners but all are there to reinforce Callie’s stupid decisions and incoherent behaviour.  Ultimately, for me it all worked to devalue and minimise something that is a serious issue.

Ultimately, given that this book really didn’t work for me I can’t say that I would hurry to read Robins’s next book.

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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