Things We Knew Were True by Nicci Gerrard

Past is a bitter pill for the new romantics
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The Independent Culture

It's hard not to picture the husband-and-wife writing team of "Nicci French" sitting face to face like Hollywood hacks, punching out their latest psychological thriller in a Marlboro haze. Now journalist Nicci Gerrard, writing under her own name for the first time, has abandoned the co-authorial seat for some emotional sleuthing of her own.

Her collaborative fiction touched on some of the age's more fashionable disorders: false memory syndrome, abusive relationships and a whole spectrum of obsessive behaviours. In Things We Knew Were True, she addresses a more mundane and universal complaint: the scary fact of reaching 40, losing your parents, losing your looks and realising that life has passed you by.

The novel opens on a deceptively sunny note. Edie, the narrative linchpin, is the middle child of a shambolic provincial family. Tidy, demure and prone to introspection, she spends a lot of time skulking in her room. Big sister Stella, by contrast, is everyone's best friend, blessed with creamy skin and apricot locks. Jude, the baby, is prickly, overweight and devoted to Tolkien.

Life for 16-year-old Edie is a predictable round of homework and girlie sleepovers, until she meets Ricky, a boy with cheap clothes and a bad haircut whose "young, romantic soul" and hungry kisses shock her into the "dazzle of the present".

Enveloped in the drama of first love, which Gerrard captures in all its unnerving excitement, Edie is blithely oblivious to a more disturbing endgame being played out even closer to home. Her dad - the sweet, kind and endlessly irritating Vic - is about to throw himself off a bridge, dragging his family down with him.

Just when you think the novel might pooter along as a nicely observed slice of domestic realism, Gerrard fast-forwards the action 20 years to Edie's mother's funeral. At this point the novel gets interesting and tiptoes closer to its central theme. What happens if the past is not the place you fondly thought it to be? In Gerrard's detective fiction flick knives and chains inflict the harm; here it's everyday secrets.

The three sisters, now on the verge of middle age, have ghosts to lay to rest, wine to drink and Nigella recipes to serve. Clearing out her mother's bedroom, Edie uncovers evidence of a long-ago affair - a discovery that not only triggers an uncomfortable reassessment of her parents' marriage, but also sends her tripping down a dangerous memory lane of her own. In an act of uncharacteristic self-destruction, the happily married Edie goes in search of Ricky.

In a novel that examines the tantalising "what ifs" of romantic history, this seemingly ordinary story sprouts wings in its last few chapters. Husbands confront wives, and children lose mothers. Reminiscent of the work of American writers such as Alice Hoffmann and Sue Miller, Gerrard's debut combines homespun whimsy (dewy gardens, autumn moons, well-stocked pantries) with a steely narrative grip. A cautionary tale for fortysomething marrieds who have started to view their romantic pasts through spectacles - rose-tinted or otherwise.