“What is life but a compendium of stories?” (4 stars)
Source: personal copy
Published by Ebury Press, this edition in 2009
I read the paperback edition which is 306 pages
I have read a couple of stories recently about death and grief (cheerful I know). This novel concentrates on a family in the aftermath of a murder, namely at the devastation felt by a sibling at the loss of someone close to them.
Eighteen years ago, Ellie’s sister Lila was brutally murdered. In the aftermath of the shocking crime, Ellie was then betrayed by her university professor and confidant Andrew Thorpe- who wrote an opportunistic, hard-hitting book on Lila’s death, and in turn named a potential suspect, her sisters married lover. No one was ever tried for Lila’s murder and now, after a chance encounter Ellie realises that the potential suspect may not be the perpetrator after all. Determined to truly investigate her sisters death for the first time, Ellie is forced to examine the mysterious secrets surrounding Lila and just who may have wanted to kill her and most importantly, why.
I got this book for my birthday. I think it was one of those discounted supermarket reads I pulled out of the bargain bin, so if I’m honest I wasn’t exactly expecting much- even though the summary sounded pretty decent. Boy, was I wrong! This was an engrossing read and a captivating story of secrets, murder and betrayal. Again, another read-in-one-sitting kind of book for me too. I had never heard of Michelle Richmond before, but suffice to say I would certainly pick up more titles from her in future.
Character-wise, the author allows you to get right into their heads. Ellie is looking back at events in hindsight and the author is careful to distinguish just how different the sisters were; Lila is a maths prodigy, studying at Stanford. She isn’t especially a people person and doesn’t really have any close friends. Her life revolves around maths. To be honest, I found descriptions of all of the interspersed academic formulas quite dry- though this is because I didn’t understand them and mathematics, like science, has always been one of my weaker subjects! By contrast, Ellie is somewhat carefree and less inclined to settle down into any significant career, though she has more of a social life. She has also felt that Lila is the more intelligent, revered sister in the eyes of her parents. It is only in later years that Ellie finds her own niche in life- and quite by accident- that of a ‘cupper.’ As a coffee addict myself, I was really interested in learning about that role and what it entails- it seems like the author has done a significant amount of research in that area and it really came to life for me- a nice contrast from all of the mathematical jargon!
The way that Ellie and her family deal with the aftermath of Lila’s murder is also nicely crafted. This book contains a lot of raw, emotional insight and then when Ellie is deeply betrayed by someone she thought was a friend, you really feel for her. That said, she accepts the opinion in her professor’s book as the ultimate truth and it is only years later that she begins to have doubts. The journey she undertakes during this book is a painful one as realisations slowly come to the fore. She comes to understand Lila -and in turn herself -a bit better.
The writing in this book is almost sparing in places, yet beautifully loquacious in other parts. The descriptions of its predominant settings- primarily San Francisco and Nicaragua, are vivid and evocative and I particularly enjoyed reading about these exciting sounding places that I haven’t experienced. When Ellie visits the coffee plantations you can almost smell the beans roasting- it was described in a very sensory manner and was a subject matter I could have quite happily read more about.
At its heart though, this book remains a murder mystery. The repercussions of Lila’s murder are still reverberating even almost two decades after her death: Ellie is unable to trust men and hold down a stable relationship, the once tight-knit family has been fractured and people who were suspected of the crime have had their characters stained indelibly. I think that the novel did a beautiful (and realistic) job in showing that such an event doesn’t just impact on people in the short term, that it can ruin multiple lives and seemingly forever. Grief also doesn’t just “pass” with time, the feeling can hit you at the most unexpected of occaisions, even years after the fact; a memory, a subtle reminder of that person can transport you right back to a single moment with them. In trying to solve her sister’s murder, Ellie was brought closer to Lila once more, despite all of the heartache that this caused her.
I can’t actually allude to my one main disappointment in this novel (other than all of the boring talk about maths!), for risk of giving away any spoilers. It wasn’t a massive deal, but I just felt that one particular aspect of the plot was lacking towards the end and not extensively explained in a way that I perhaps would have liked, particularly given the way that other events were handled throughout the rest of the storyline. That said, No One You Know was the kind of book that held my attention throughout and I really enjoyed its atmospheric settings and great level of depth. This is the perfect read to transport you to sunnier climates- and I also think it would make a really interesting book group read as it evokes a lot of thought-provoking questions.