Kingsley Publishers, South Africa, 2022
Cover design not acknowledged
What makes this thriller, Jess Kitching’s second book, so very unsettling and disturbing is the utter familiarity of the characters and their world – two young primary school teachers (Cassie and Tara), a teachers’ aide (Debbie), a small circle of close female friends (Alisha, Laney and Lily), a fiancé (Jamie), his parents and sisters.
We see them sharing their heartaches and joys, planning a wedding, socialising, working. All very normal. And yet lurking beneath this domestic ordinariness is psychological deviance and an abusive personality.
Could this happen to any of us? Perhaps. But the thing that sets Cassie on a dangerous path is her decision to seek revenge rather than walking away. When school assistant Debbie reveals to Cassie a photograph of fiancé Jamie kissing another woman (Tara), Cassie determines to destroy both of these people she thinks have wronged her. Debbie warns more than once against this, and we do so wish that Cassie had heeded the slightly older woman’s wise advice.
The further Cassie digs into Jamie, the more awfulness she finds. I won’t spoil this for the reader, but suffice it to say that there is some very dark matter here. Cassie plots and schemes and thinks she has come up with a foolproof plan to wreak revenge. Any small misgivings she has are quickly suppressed.
The author cleverly allows the reader doubts and suspicions along the way too, enough clues to suspect what’s happening, but saves the crashing final blow till the very last paragraphs. This is clever plot construction which demonstrates Jess Kitching’s fine control of her medium.
While we are focussed on the unravelling of the secrets and lies in this story and held tightly in the storyteller’s grasp, we are also bound to consider several big themes which the author tackles. These include the societal expectation so firmly fixed in our psychology and physiology that we will meet a perfect mate and that there is a time limit on this governed, to some extent, by the female’s ticking body clock.
Then there is the exploration of the dual edged sword of technology in general and social media specifically. Cassie thinks she has this well under control but we are increasingly aware of how difficult it is to manage such things.
The other major strand I need to mention is the lack of legal protection that our system provides for people abused in real life or on social media platforms. The ungoverned space of the web is a disturbing issue made crystal clear in this story.
There are examples in this book of women finding peace of mind and being content through independence and respectful relationships. The warning lights are ever present, however, as we readers glimpse chinks of the real world through the cracks in Cassie’s blinkered point of view.
Jess Kitching has given us an absorbing story of trust and betrayal with a clear moral message which reinforces the adage that revenge is a dish best served cold. A cooler head may have saved Cassie from the ultimate catastrophe.
The fact that the reader retains sympathy for Cassie despite her mistakes and missteps is an indicator of the author’s consummate skill as a storyteller, a writer who creates characters we feel we know and in whose welfare we are invested. After all, it could be us or someone close to us. That’s such literary strength.
No wonder this author has an eight-book deal from her publisher. I look forward to the next which is due out in September 2023.
Thank you to Kingsley Publishers for my review copy and to Jess for a relaxed and wide-ranging conversation about this book and the many important issues it raises.