Exquisite by Sarah Stovell (Orenda Books)

I’ll be honest, this review was almost not ready in time for my day on the Exquisite blog tour. I’ve spent the last two weeks knowing I needed to read it, really wanting to read it, but not finding the time in a busy two weeks of daily work, kids and general time-consuming life tasks. I needn’t have worried, though. In four and a half hours, I’ve devoured this psychological thriller and I’m comfortably writing this review at 2:45pm on Sunday 4th June, to be ready for my day on the blog tour on Monday 5th June. Phew!

Exquisite tells the story of Alice, a clever, aspiring writer who has had a troubled upbringing, and she has found herself in a rut with her artist-cum-layabout boyfriend, living in a hovel, and in her determination to revive her ambitions to be a writer, she submits a short story to try and gain a place on a writing course in Northumberland with revered, famous author, Bo Luxton. Bo reads Alice’s story and instantly feels a buzz about her potential protegé. When they meet, a relationship develops that throws both Bo and Alice into a turmoil. However, all is not as it seems.

Sarah Stovell writes with considerable artistry. The dual viewpoints of Bo and Alice enlightens the reader whilst adding another sense of mystery, as the reader does not know who to trust. The sporadic chapters written from Her Majesty’s Prison for Women, Yorkshire, written in italics, tells the reader that one of the women has done something so drastic that they have ended up in prison, but the reader is none the wiser as to which of the characters has turned to criminality.  The balance of the narrative is perfect to mislead the reader into changing their mind throughout as to who is speaking from prison.

The plot itself is quite simple but what Stovell does with it, how she builds it up and tells the story is nothing short of brilliant. I’m so glad I read this book in one sitting, because I know I would not have been able to put this down. Stovell has the reader gripped from the first chapter, one of the prison chapters. The novel holds such promise as a build up to some terrible event that has led to the apparent model prisoner committing a crime so terrible.

As is characteristic of novels published by Orenda Books, there is a great onus on the character development of the main protagonists in Exquisite. Bo and Alice are written with such precision, both with a harrowing back-story, both with their crosses to bear and both with a habit of making bad decisions. Stovell creates in the reader a sympathy with both characters and a confusion as to how one of these women could commit a crime so heinous that it leads to jail time. The prison chapters make the reader look for clues, but although they are there, Stovell still manages to distract the reader from the identity of the prisoner until it is revealed towards the end.

The beautiful Lake District backdrop to a considerable amount of the story feeds into the air of mystery, as the characters walk the fells and picnic in the stunningly atmospheric countryside. It’s used as  foreboding landscape, adding a sense of the unknown to the background, cleverly adding another layer of tension to the action without the reader fully being aware of it. Contrasted with Brighton, where Alice calls home, the Lake District is made to feel extremely attractive to the reader, particularly with its rich tapestry of literary history, but there’s an added feeling of vastness, which gives the narrative an interesting dynamic.

It is no surprise to me that this book is so brilliant. It has become so natural for Orenda Books to be synonymous with beautifully written, atmospheric, engaging and unique novels that it’s not so much an expectation, but a foregone conclusion that any novel released by Orenda will be exceptional to the point that you want to unread it and read it again with an unknowing mind. Exquisite is no exception. There is definitely scope for a sequel too. I don’t know if that is the intention, or whether this will be a stunning, stand-alone that leaves you to imagine what could happen next but what I do know is that I have enjoyed every twist and turn of this novel and I will, as always, be recommending this book wholeheartedly.

Exquisite Vis 3