How You See Me, by S E Craythorne - Book review: Letters of deception

Myriad - £8.99

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How You See Me is an old-fashioned epistolary novel, oblivious to the digital varieties of communication that have all but obliterated the form. In it, Daniel Laird is summoned to rural Norfolk from Manchester’s Northern Quarter to nurse his ailing father, from whom he has been estranged for nine years.

The architecture of the novel is tight and spare. Daniel’s uneasy homecoming and artful dodging around the traumatic event that propelled him from home are delicately handled in a series of letters that he writes to his older sister, his boss, and his employer. He both explains his sudden absence from Manchester and describes the oddness of his return in restrained, vivid prose. Yet before long the reader starts to wonder if his correspondents are writing back, or if Daniel is even sending the letters at all.

The action of the novel is similarly small scale. Daniel’s father, once a lauded artist, has been reduced by age and illness to a silent, child-like presence in his cottage. The characterisation of this relationship is masterful. Daniel fears and loves and is repelled by his father; he gently tends to him and, while he sleeps, searches his studio and finds a series of paintings that hint at a darker tale than the one he is willing to tell. Daniel appears to want to receive or grant forgiveness, and this is dramatised with patient subtlety in Daniel’s careful tending of his father’s wounds.

Even though Daniel’s version of events is the only one we hear, the inconsistencies start to become apparent. His erotic obsession with his girlfriend is without depth or substance; does he know her at all? His job sounds too odd to be true, and there’s a strange link between his employer and his sister.

Slowly (too slowly) the plot thickens. While there’s nothing new here – literature is stuffed with stalkers and creepers and deviants, it’s what unreliable narrators are for – Craythorne’s skill is in making us pity Daniel more, even as the evidence stacks up against him.

The denouement is slow to come and the closing pages tie up the novel’s various mysteries too neatly and leave bigger, less obvious questions unresolved, yet for all of that, this is a polished literary mystery exploring the fragile and intensely human nature of deception.

The Friday Gospels, by Jenn Ashworth, is published by Sceptre, £8.99