Araminta Hall: everything and nothing (2011) Social Realism and Psychological Suspense

Ruth and Christian are – just – holding their marriage together, after Christian’s disastrous affair a year ago. But chaos beckons, and when the family are suddenly left without any childcare, Agatha comes into their lives to solve all their problems. But Agatha is not as perfect as she seems and her love for the children masks a deeper secret.

I read a review of this book on Lizzy’s Literary Life and something told me I might like it. And I did. It was one of those super fast reads, a book that I could hardly put down. Really riveting. The only complaint I have is that this is labelled as a psychological thriller. Although there is a part of it reminiscent of Ruth Rendell, it is like a background story and not really very gripping. At least not for me. Still I consider this to be a real page-turner for the simple reason that it captures chaotic family life in so much detail and explores some of the questions and problems parents who work full-time would face. I often enjoy descriptions of domestic life although I don’t live anything that is even remotely comparable.

Ruth and Christian both not only work full-time but overtime many days of the week. They both have careers that seem to absorb all of their energy and when they come home in the evening they face total chaos. The place is dirty, sticky and disorderly, the little girl is screaming constantly and throws one temper tantrum after the other. The little boy, at three, still doesn’t eat properly and drinks from a bottle. The nights are nightmares too. Ruth and Christian fight and when they finally go to bed, the girl starts to scream again. She always wakes at midnight and never goes back to sleep.

At the beginning of the novel Ruth knows she isn’t capable of going on like this. She needs a new nanny. And in comes Agatha. We know from the start that something is wrong with her. She lives in daydreams and lies to her employers and to herself constantly. Something bad has happened in her past, a trauma that she cannot overcome and tries to repress with her imagination.

Family life improves considerably after she has started working for Ruth and Christian. She is super organized and makes Ruth feel deficient. To make things worse, Christian accidentally meets the woman he has had an affair with and starts seeing her for drinks.

Something bad, coming from Agatha, is lurking in the background and we know things will go very awry. But as said, this is completely toned down. I was fascinated by Ruth. Christian was not particularly interesting. Just one of those guys who thinks he has the right to have an affair when his wife is pregnant for the second time and is not that much into him during that time.  Ruth shows every sign of a severe depression and what I found interesting is the fact that this did not start right after she had the first baby but several months later. As if the bubble of enchantment that the little baby brought burst suddenly. From that moment on she struggles. I could feel the exhaustion of that woman and I know that this is very realistic. Women around me have mentioned it. If you are unlucky and have a baby that doesn’t sleep well and you need to go to work every morning… Ruth is a journalist and her work is very demanding. There is always someone waiting to jump into her position should she show signs of weakness.

I also hear the type of questioning very often that Ruth utters. Is it OK to work full-time and have children? Is it OK to have someone else looking after them? I think in the book the problem isn’t only that Ruth works full-time but that both work overtime and that she tries for too long to cope with everything else as well. She is afraid that having a nanny means defeat. And she thinks that women like Nigella Lawson are an example for the fact that it is possible to have and do it all yourself.

There is a strange fascination in seeing people at their most vulnerable, when their masks are down. That’s what made this book so riveting for me. And I think the questions it asks are very important.

I would be curious to hear from anyone who has read it.

This was Araminta Hall’s first novel. I really wouldn’t mind reading the next one too.

21 thoughts on “Araminta Hall: everything and nothing (2011) Social Realism and Psychological Suspense

  1. It’s certainly good but I’m not sure I want to read about creepy nannies if I want to go on sleeping at night and be comfortable with what happens on Wednesdays when we’re not at home.

    I have friends whose children wouldn’t sleep until they were 3 or 5 years old. It’s awful.

    And yes, it’s difficult to have two full-time jobs and children and keep the balance between their needs and your needs. Difficult, but possible. Thankfully, technology helps and doing overtime at home is sometimes possible if needed. And you become an artist of time-tables.

    • She sure is a creepy nanny. I think it is silly to want to do everything on your own. There are so many possibilities. When both partners work you also have double income and should be able to get help. But you know, it is much easier in France. I know of no Swiss women who work full-time. Day care is too expensive and there isn’t much available. And of course, those who work part-time always say that the others are bad mothers. What she shows nicely is that the father is never blamed. It is true, I never hear anyone say “He is so selfish, he works full-time”.
      A friend of mine never slept because she just got too scared that she might not hear the little son if something happened. Her husband always slept peacefully.

      • I know Frenchwomen are lucky : there are ways to have children taken care of when you work. No one thinks you’re a bad mother when you work full-time. And men born in the 1970s and after usually want to take time for their children. They don’t think pampering is a woman thing.
        Is it because of this that we have a high birth-rate? You don’t have to sacrifice your life for your children but their well-being must be taken into account whatever you choose to do. It’s a compromise.

        • Honestly I think you are lucky in France. I’m sure children do not want you to give up everything for them and then maybe even end up blaming them for it. Unfortunately I still hear of younger fathers who aren’t very helpful.

  2. Caroline: I was thinking about you this morning. I am reading a Kate Atkinson novel (Started Early, Took the Dog) that reminds me of a Rendell (at her peak) and wondered if you’d read any Atkinson?

    The book’s cover made me think of Rendell right away, but then you the Rendell-like theme is in the background.

    • I read Case Histories and it was one of my favourite reads that year. Absolutely great. As a matter of fact actually one of the cases where I found the book too great to risk reading the next one. Did you read the Brodie novels chronologically? It’s the fourth one already, right? I’m very tempted now…

  3. This sounds very good – although it reminds me of Fay Weldon’s She May Not Leave, which was a good creepy nanny story. Perhaps there’s a sub-genre of them now, into which we could throw The Hand That Rocks The Cradle! But I’ll look out for it when it comes out in paperback over here in August.

    • I don’t know this Weldon title but just checked, there are some parallels, yes. I was also reminded of A Kind of Intimacy which Danielle and Guy reviewed last year and I reviewed in January.
      I thought that Ruth was very well drawn and I think that part of the novel was way better than the thriller part itself. Still she manages well to show how scary it must be for many parents to hand over the responsibility for their children. Can they really trust the person who takes care of their children?

  4. A first book this good? she’ll have a bright future ahead.
    I can sense the suspense trought your review. This Agatha really makes me wonder. While the husband character seems to be the kind I don’t mind to skip.

    • I am curious what she will write in the future. I was also wondering if she wrote her own story as she was a journalist and has three kids. Ruth and Agatha are interesting characters. He really isn’t.

  5. It’s not been published over here yet unfortunately. It does sound good–both for the suspense aspect as well as the insight into the wife’s relationships with husband and child and all the other stresses she must contend with. There was a movie made some years back with a similar storyline, though I don’t recall the name now which I recall being very creepy indeed.

    • I think you might like this. It isn’t as good as A Kind of Intimacy and there is no unreliable narrator, still there are some parallels. It’s a fast read and very interesting.

  6. I’m not a fan of the “creepy nanny” genre either (thanks to Bookaroundthecorner for inspiring that description!), but I like how you drew attention to the pros and cons of the novel. It’s sometimes difficult to balance out the praise and criticism in a post, I find. The cover art makes me suspect I would hate this book, though: it looks like a poster for a cheesy movie!

    • Thanks, that’s exactly what I wanted. There are a lot of good bits in this book but I think only the next one will tell in what direction she will really go. It’s not very cheesy. Interesting that the cover gave you that idea. On the other hand if I had seen it in a bookshop the cover wouldn’t have attracted my attention. Creepy nanny is a good term, I totally agree with you. It’s not my favourite genre either but occasionally it works well.

  7. Very interesting – I’ve not heard of that title, but may have heard of the author. Sounds like a good combination – elements of Ruth Rendell is a good point as far as I’m concerned.

    I suppose the theme plays to the darkest fears of many young families today.

    • That’s it, exactly. I have never heard of any couple having a creepy nanny so far but all the other problems and struggles and the anxiousness regarding the “handing over” of your kids is very common and extremely well depicted I think.

  8. I can see why this might have been likened to Sophie Hannah, especially to the first in her series ‘Little Face’. I shall have to look out for it when it’s published here.

  9. Pingback: Best and Worst Books 2011 « Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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