Eleanor Ray – Everything is beautiful

Published in the UK by Piatkus, 2021

One might be fooled by the pretty floral cover and romancey title of this book. For all the world it looks like a light romantic romp, but it is in fact a dark crime mystery with themes of grief and loss, trust and betrayal, power and domestic abuse.

Barbie speaks with Eleanor Ray about Everything is beautiful

The surface plot is about Amy Ashton, who has become a serious hoarder after the sudden and concurrent disappearances of her boyfriend Tim and best friend Chantel. In a story bouncing between past and present, the author cleverly unravels the reason for Amy’s obsessive behaviour as she walls herself into her house behind piles of boxes and stacks of memory objects – china birds, cigarette lighters, pots, honeysuckle blossom, newspapers, cookbooks, mirrors, tubes of handcream, key rings, mugs and wine bottles.

For Amy each of these objects holds the significance of a happy memory with Tim, and with the time before her life suddenly ceased to make sense. Amy’s life at work continues much as normal as she is unable to speak to anyone about the disappearance and all that it entails. At home it is a different story as she creates a fortress for herself against the outside world and her own ever roiling thoughts.

With parents from whom she is estranged, she is very much alone in the world trying to make sense of the unbelievable, refusing to accept that the version being fed to her is the real story. Nevertheless, tantalizing clues are dropped for heroine and reader and she sets out to unravel the mystery.

The story unfolds seamlessly between past and present – the past explains the present but in cleverly meted doses so that the reader is constantly held in thrall. Amy’s inability to trust works both for and against her and it is a great characteristic for the detective she becomes, as she relentlessly questions the apparent evidence and what people say.

Many nice touches of the everyday lighten the darkness of the story – interactions with work colleagues and council officials, the flowering relationship with Richard and his children, the rather lovely relationship with her neighbour Rachel, descriptions of her treasured objects. There is humour here but for readers there is also fear as we track Amy’s state of mind and absorb the underlying sense of threat to her real safety as she gets closer to the truth.

I loved this book. It is completely engaging, unputdownable stuff. The author has skilfully engendered our concurrent sympathy and exasperation with Amy, just as she has allowed our oh so gradual understanding of the mystery and of the nastiness and criminality that has led to her present unhappy and precarious situation.

Some themes are brushed upon but not fully explored, like domestic abuse, police corruption and the fracturing of family. They are sufficiently present to add flesh to the main plot and to at times cunningly distract us from drawing simple solutions.

And as for Amy’s hoarding, we must but put ourselves in those grieving shoes  before making judgments. The author’s delicate examination of the many ways of grieving demonstrates yet another string to her deliciously complex literary bow.

Thank you to Hachette Australia/Piatkus UK for my review copy and to Eleanor for joining me via the wonders of ZOOM for a conversation.