The Safe Place (Anna Downes) – book review

The London life of a young actor can be one of flopped auditions, money scrounging, crummy rentals and the occasional spot of couch surfing. Emily Proudman has just lost her day job as well as her agent, so at this point is absolutely open to all opportunities that could save her from yet another begging phone call to her parents. The Safe Place is a reminder that when an offer appears too good to be true, it requires closer scrutiny.

Bang in the nick of time Emily receives an enticing proposition from her former boss, the gorgeous multi-millionaire Scott Denny, that may just solve her immediate problems.  The prospect of living at the Denny’s beachside French estate is extremely appealing to the impoverished Emily, even if she is expected to clean and look after a pampered child whilst doing so.  Scott and Claire Denny make a beautiful couple, and it is not long before Emily falls for both of them.  It is a little more difficult to get close to their six year old daughter Aurelia, but Emily is confident she will be soon be successful in making the prickly little girl comfortable in her company.

The challenges of being out of cell and internet range fade away as the idyllic summer rolls on with the long days of working on the rundown estate tempered by the pleasure of frequent wine tastings and creative meals served by the talented Claire.  Not being allowed inside the private home of the Denny’s is a little odd, but of course Emily is more than happy to live in the lovely guest house across the way on her own.  It’s a little strange too how little time how Scott actually spends at home, but Emily supposes running such a thriving business requires a lot of his time.  Aurelia is determinedly mute, and Emily never has it fully explained to her what the little girl is suffering from.  Surely if Scott and Claire were a perfect couple also, Scott wouldn’t be making a pass at the help?

About a third of the way into The Safe Place, intent is still difficult to ascertain. The novel is a somewhat amiable drama read up to this point. Nothing to see here, just a British girl having some continental adventures before she knuckles down and makes some inroads into adult life, falling into a job that will be enough to support her until firm decisions can be made as to what comes next. Some saucy possibilities perhaps with her very attractive employers to add some sparkle into the ultimate summer job.

But no, The Safe Place was just softening us up for something more serious. The delicious cover art is but a lure.

The author makes mention in her afterword of the real life case which inspired parts of The Safe Place so it is not a spoiler to say that as the novel progresses, it becomes evident which particular high profile kidnapping  the author had in mind. Larger statements could have been made about the perils of young Londonites who travel to take au pair/home help positions, or perhaps more about troubled children, but these mentions are just smoke as to what is really going on in what at first appears to be paradise.

The undertow of The Safe Place is subtly manipulated, with the inner narrative of Emily pulling and pushing against what she wants to believe in order to keep the peace, and the slow dawning horror as to what it is she is witnessing play out in front of her.  The Safe Place is a curiously constructed mystery that at first appears to have no villain to throw our suspicions over, and goes into a little introspective wool gathering in the wrap up.  A soporific read of love and lies, masked best intentions and the need to belong, The Safe Place is a engaging mystery that treads lightly as it entertains.

The Safe Place is the debut novel of British author Anna Downes and published by Affirm Press.

Andy Thompson

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