An intense, smouldering domestic thriller.

Anna Downes’ debut The Safe Place is an intense, un-put-down-able domestic thriller that had me turning pages well into the wee hours. Emily Proudman is an aspiring actress working as a temp at Proem, a high-end investment firm in London. When she loses her job, her flat, and her acting agent all in one day it seems as though she’s reached rock bottom; bewildered, spiralling, with no one to turn to, she feels the darkness that has haunted her since she was a child beginning to close in in the form of a panic attack, when Scott Denny, the CEO and founder of Proem, appears like a knight to rescue her. He offers her a job as a housekeeper and nanny with his family at their estate on the French coast, and with no other options Emily jumps at the lifeline. But when she arrives at the estate and meets Nina, Scott’s impossibly perfect yet strangely absent wife, Emily begins to feel as though something is very wrong with the Dennys. Strange rotten smells, mysterious outbursts, cameras all over the house, and an almost phobic fear of outsiders, are all clues that Emily, after several weeks on the estate, can no longer ignore. Is there really something wrong, or are there just factors she just doesn’t understand? How could anything bad be happening in such a sun-soaked paradise?

I could not put this book down. I read it in two days, I dreamt about the characters, and I couldn’t shake the sense of foreboding and tension even after I’d finished the final intense chapters. Without wanting to give too much away, I’ll just say that this book is excellently paced, brilliantly atmospheric, and a very well written debut. Readers are drip-fed clues of what’s really going on, and there are even sections where you begin to wonder if there’s really anything wrong at all; but then you remember a reference to blood that shouldn’t have been there, an unexplained stain, a bald lie that went unexplained, and you know that there are hidden depths lying just out of reach.

Most of the novel is told from Emily’s point of view, with a few chapters told from Scott and Nina’s perspectives, and it’s these brief glimpses into the ulterior motives of the Dennys that help drive the tension; it seems that Emily has been manipulated into her employment at the estate, but to what end is not fully clear. Downes also does an excellent job of tying up all loose ends, which in a story as intense and tightly-wind as The Safe Place is a grateful relief. I’d recommend this to any lover of intense thrillers, particularly if action thrillers aren’t your forte, as there’s only a small amount of running for one’s life in this story; the tension is much more based on the character’s relationships and emotional states than on outside pressures.

This review was first published on ArtsHub.

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