Books Fiction: What Maisie knew

THE GOD CHILD by Paul Sayer, Bloomsbury pounds 14.99
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The Independent Culture
The opening to this novel is pure Stephen King: "I hate the wind. The way it bangs off the sea," the protagonist's elderly mother says, holed up in the winter-emptied bar of her clifftop hotel. "You think something dreadful's going to happen." Her son Harold Broome is 39, back in the fuggy nest after a disastrous marriage and a long adult slide between failing businesses. Chafed by memories and self-recrimination, he meanders through the grey March days. Each Friday night his small release is to walk the wet streets of his east Yorkshire town, "the wind's slapping hands at my back", to a pub and a few pairs of pints with a dull friend from school.

A dozen pages in, Sayer slips a shock into this routine. As Broome sits, his boredom blunted by bitter, his niece Maisie walks in. She is supposed to be at university in Newcastle, and on her arm is a young man with small, aggressive eyes; Broome steps over. A frosty greeting quickly becomes an insult, a shove, raised fists in the cold alley outside. Broome stalks home, humiliated. Then Maisie rings from her house across town: the young man is dead.

Sayer chases nimbly through the genre plot development. The dead man is in Maisie's kitchen, leaking blood from a hole the width of a chopping blade. Maisie says she did it. Broome, after a finely-caught ecstasy of hesitation and impulsion - "there simply wasn't time to think" - decides to stop her ringing the police. Maisie is his niece and something of a miracle in his eyes: born two months premature after a car crash that killed her mother. The Broomes know Maisie as the God Child; Harold will get rid of the body for her.

One minute, it is the easiest thing in the world: just drag the body into the car boot, jam the parcel shelf down on top, throw in a shovel, and head inland for the woods. The next, the family favour is impossible, soul-corroding: a trip to the DIY centre to buy quicklime dissolves into a sweating nightmare of suspicious glances, security cameras, and a small girl complaining about the funny smell in the car park. Broome makes countless small mistakes. Brown blood patches mark his clothes; a farmer spots him beside the wood, still giddy from the digging. But Broome gets it done, and waits for time and decomposition to finish the job.

They don't, of course. As summer blazes in, a detective, then the dead man's relations, arrive from Newcastle. Short crisp chapters end in frights and revelations. As the remaining pages thin down, expectations thicken of a flight along the cliffs, or some violent showdown at the hotel, mother hiding from the gunshots behind her favourite barstool.

But the book passes up these possibilities for something more subtle. Sayer's writing is spare and cool, slightly at odds with the melodrama it carries; at the end, his tone of seaside resignation, of lives stilled between the town's great sweep of beach and sky, begins to infect and slow the pace of events. Broome is questioned and accused, he in turn demands the truth from Maisie - yet all of these confrontations lack the back-and-forth decisiveness of a thriller climax, opting instead for friction and frustration, the stuff of Alan Bennett rather than Alistair MacLean. It doesn't quite work. Maisie and the dead man never become more than sketches. Broome's panics never boil into hysteria. Yet the eerie quiet that surrounds their final accommodation has its power. And leaves room for a sequel.