Two novels give significant roles to individuals or groups who are living on the margins of society, with all the potential for dark moral compromises that can entail. In both, trees are an important element but not in a good way; there’s something nasty, and most likely deadly too, out there in the woods.
In Sam Lloyd’s The People Watcher (Bantam), Mercy Lake is a physically and mentally damaged young woman who lives a nocturnal existence spent wandering the high wooded hill overlooking a small English town observing and intervening in the lives of the people around her with clumsily ineffectual good intentions. This could be the scenario for the sort of novel that has a cover involving lots of pastel colours and friendly fat writing but a seemingly chance meeting between Mercy and the enigmatic Louis takes it into much darker territory.
The Clearing (Harper Collins) by Simon Toyne starts with the disappearance of Maddie Friar following the Midsummer fair in Cinderfield, a small town near to the Forest of Dean, about which the police are surprisingly uninterested. She and her sister Adele have a troubled background, growing up in the misnamed ‘care’ system and then spending time in a community of outcasts scratching a living in the forest.
The atmospherics created by a particular place are key features in both novels, Lloyd plays with the conventions of British suburbia, particularly our fascination with the half-glimpsed lives of others seen through windows at night.
The difference between us and Mercy Lake is that we can recognise fictions for what they are because our grip on reality is likely to be more conventional, if sometimes no less tenuous. That she can’t grasp this reality allows him to set up the moral question that is central to the plot: what if fear has more power than kindness to right wrongs.
Through the relationship that develops between her and Louis as they stand outside the world, observing it from on high, Mercy discovers a way to have agency over her own neuroses and the lives of those around her. This though, comes with a cost. Her newfound confidante has an unsettling way of knowing what to say to unlock the memories she has built a whole new identity to hide.
People and place
Toyne’s book is more straightforwardly a thriller and one that provides a second outing for forensic investigator Laughton Rees, pitting her against powerful people with secrets to hide. Maddie is only the latest in a string of vulnerable young women to go missing, about whom the police are reluctant to launch investigations.
Here too the forest provides an ancient presence, (not least in the shape of ‘the clearing’ where a community of outcasts lives in the woods protected by ancient customs and their fearsome reputation) forever brooding somewhere in the background. The world of folkloric monsters it seems might not be entirely the product of ignorance and overactive imaginations.
Although The Clearing doesn’t pose sophisticated moral questions, the provincial bad guys in high places and their motivations are grimly prosaic enough to be entirely convincing, Toyne delivers everything you would expect from a thriller and then some. Unsurprisingly for someone who used to work in television he understands intrinsically how vital pace and suspense are to storytelling. His characters are strong and based on this second outing the series has a long and fruitful run ahead.
The People Watcher depends on the reader having to slightly suspend disbelief when it comes to the book’s resolution. Since this is viewed through the cracked prism of Mercy’s understanding of reality it makes a satisfying, if skewed, sort of sense.
Both books are the work of writers in the early stages of their careers and suggest that they have the potential to make a significant contribution to the genre as their work develops.