April's Grave (by Susan Howatch)

I have enjoyed Susan Howatch's writing for about eight or nine years now, particularly her 'Starbridge' series. I'm less keen on her historical sagas, and not at all sure what to make of her earliest work, the 'gothic' thrillers. Still, once I like a writer I tend to collect all her (or his) works, so I have them all on my shelves.

I don't remember if I've ever read 'April's Grave' before. Certainly not for a long time, and I didn't have any recollection of it - even slightly. As with all Susan Howatch's work, it's very well-written, fast-paced, and with believable characters who are clearly distinct, despite being pretty short: only 156 pages.

It's mainly told from the point of view of Karen, who is in America when the story opens. She goes out to dinner with Marnie - a man, who just happens to be in her town, and who was the best man at her wedding to Neville a few years back. She has not seen Neville for three years, since a major fight over his infidelity, but they are still legally married.

Karen makes a casual enquiry after her twin sister April, whom she has not heard from in three years. In discussion, they realise that April has apparently vanished from the face of the earth. Karen decides she will spend some time in the UK, seeing her stepson who has the unlikely nickname of Snuff, and possibly seeing Neville, whom she realises she still loves.

Suspicions rise that April must have been murdered. However, Karen and Nevile start on a tentative reunion, and travel to Scotland, to the place where they last saw April. Other people gather in the same place, for various reasons: Marnie, who works with Neville; Leonie, Neville's sister and housekeeper; Snuff, who plays an important part in the story, and Melissa, an old friend of Karen's who has also been Neville's lover during their separation.

I didn't find this nearly as frightening as some of Susan Howatch's other 'gothic' novels; although there's some tension as the story draws to a close, it's more like crime fiction - a 'whodunit'- than a real thriller. For me, that's a plus point as I don't like too much tension!

Other than Snuff, who was something of a shadowy figure, and Melissa, who rather a caricature, the people seemed real and the interactions believable - even if the end was rather melodramatic. But then that's what happens in gothic novels.

Recommended, on the whole. Not in print - and would probably be lost in antiquity if it weren't for Howatch's successes with her later novels - but frequently available second-hand.

Review copyright © Sue's book reviews, 17th May 2008. All rights reserved.

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