Flynn Berry: Under the Harrow (2016)

I’m so glad I came across Under the Harrow on Danielle’s site here. I knew right away I would love it and I was right. Flynn Berry received the Edgar Award for her début and she certainly deserved that. It’s one of the most convincing and surprising psychological thrillers I’ve read in a long time. Think “Gone Girl” or “Girl on a Train” but much, much better and tighter, in spare, convincing prose, and with a literary quality.

At the beginning of the book, Nora’s on a train from London to the English countryside where her sister Rachel lives and works as a nurse. Rachel doesn’t pick her up at the train station, which isn’t too strange because she’s very busy, but when Nora approaches the house she senses something isn’t right. And then she finds Rachel’s dog brutally murdered and her sister savagely killed.

We ate dinner together every night in Cornwall and had an endless number of things to say. She was my favourite person to talk with, because what caught her attention caught mine too.

The police investigate and soon Nora finds out she might not have known her sister as well as she thought. Because she’s not happy with the investigation and thinks she knows who did it, she starts to investigate on her own. Her emotions complicate things considerably. Her grief is so raw, so palpable, and very complex. Nora misses Rachel so much and often forgets that she’s dead. It’s absolutely harrowing.

She had so much left to do. It isn’t that she had something grand in mind, at least not that I know of. It is worse than that, she has been taken away from everything, she lost everything. She likes red lipstick, and will never again stand in the aisle at a chemist’s, testing the shades on the back of her hand. She likes films, and will miss all the ones coming out at the holidays that she planned to see. She likes pan con tomate, and will never again come home from work and mash tomatoes and garlic and olive oil, and rub it onto grilled bread, and eat it standing in her kitchen.

The reader finds out that there was a dark element in their relationship and begins to wonder whether what Nora’s saying is really true. So does the police.

And then there’s an incident from Rachel’s past that casts a shadow over everything. As a teenager she was brutally attacked and ever since then had tried to track down the man who did it and was never found by the police.

All these different plotlines come together in the end. The ending is one of the best I’ve come across in a long time. It’s a huge twist but it’s entirely plausible.

Flynn Berry is very good at creating great characters. Both Rachel and Nora feel very real. Full of contradictions, a mix of darkness and light. The secondary characters are equally convincing.

Under the Harrow is atmospheric and suspenseful but it’s much more than a simple page turner. It explores the often complex relationship between sisters, devastating grief, and the way the past can haunt us.

I know I’m raising the expectations of future readers but I have to say it— This book is stellar.

26 thoughts on “Flynn Berry: Under the Harrow (2016)

  1. You make the book sound so good Caroline. I have not read much in this genre. I have been considering reading Gone Girl because so many say it was worth it. It is impressive that you thought this was a stronger book.

    • Gone Girl, to me, was very sick and I found the characters revolting. This isn’t. sick They are flawed, yes but nothing like Gone Girl. And the way grief is described . . . it’s so realistic.

    • I found it so compelling. I can’t say why exactly, I think it’s better – and more appealing – or I’d give away too much. I hope you’ll like it. It’s quite short – 220 pages.

  2. Contemporary psychological thrillers aren’t my usual thing, mostly because I tend to find them too unsettling – somehow the tension always feels less scary when everything is set in the distant past!. Nevertheless, this does sound very accomplished – a cut above the norm, so to speak. I’ll make a note of it in case a couple of friends are looking for recommendations in this area.

    • It’s not that kind of thriller but I can’t say too much or I’d spoil it for others. It’s definitely a cut above the norm. Almost more a study of grief than a pure crime novel.

    • I really hope you will like it. I don’t like the pacing of some thrillers – the nervous energy, if you know what i mean – and this one doesn’t have that at all. And it’s very believable.

  3. Brilliant review, Caroline! This book looks wonderful! I haven’t heard of Flynn Berry before, and so I am very excited to discover a wonderful new writer! I will add this to my TBR. Thank you 🙂

  4. Wasn’t it good?! I am really sort of tired of thrillers these days, but this was a cut above the others and different than the others, too. (Or at least it seemed so to me). If your reading has been a little off, or are trying to get back into the reading groove, this definitely is a good choice. Of course–finally an author I enjoyed and this is her only book so far! So glad to see you are reading and blogging again and I hope things are going better. I need to send an email to catch up a bit–life has been a little wonky on my side of the world, too!

    • Yes, it was so so good and I only hope editors and agents will give her time to write a great second book.
      I’m much much better, thank you.
      I’m sorry to hear things were wonky, as you say. It was a bit of a difficult year for me. I had other health issues. Let’s catch up soon!

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