A Game For All the Family : An intricacy of playfulness and untruths

Anne Garvey reads a lie detector


A Game For All the FamilyBy Sophie Hannah
Hodder & Stoughton, £14.99
Reviewed by Anne Garvey

Mistress of malign suspense in her many detective novels, creator of charming poetry, already firmly placed in the GCSE syllabus, Sophie Hannah has a load of arrows in her quiver. A Game For All the Family leaves the trusted cast of characters from her crime sequence far behind in the Yorkshire Calder Valley.

The mise en scène is compellingly set out. Justine, mother of teenage Ellie, migrates from the metropolitan misery of being overworked in a stalled career to the blissful peace of a house in the Devon Dart Valley.

On their way, the family car stalls in heavy traffic outside a dreary semi on the London North Circular and Justine experiences a profound sense that one day she will return there and will be profoundly grateful to live in this noisy, ordinary house. The journey continues with the counterpoint of jolly badinage (and disbelief at this unlikely idea) and the family settles into the enviable country luxury of their extraordinarily beautiful new home.

The idyll doesn't last long. Justine finds a disturbing account, written by her daughter, of a horrifyingly dysfunctional family who live in the new house but whose lives are suffused with murder and intrigue. As if this is not unsettling enough, her once-outgoing daughter becomes withdrawn and obsessed with a boy called George she has met at her new school. George has been unjustly expelled from school for borrowing Ellie's coat, falsely accused of stealing it, she says, burning with indignation.

Justine is suddenly on the end of a sequence of alarming telephone calls from a woman who seems to know an awful lot about her and the reasons she has retired from the London publishing world where she was such a successful operator. The phantom caller threatens her with death if she doesn't go back to London immediately.

Meanwhile, Ellie is distraught about George and becomes more silent and secretive, writing compulsively in her notebook. Justine understandably storms down to school to confront the headmistress, only to be told that there is no George; he doesn't exist.

So far so engaging, and the book's blurb gives the story away up to this point. Which is precisely the juncture when it begins to unravel and we discover that the headmistress is lying, that there is a George but for complex reasons, she has had to pretend to expel him for his own good. Meanwhile, life in the Homes and Gardens house is ruined by further, constant threats and, when Justine finds a freshly dug grave outside her back door, she abandons the useless local police advice and employs a private detective to discover what is happening to her country idyll.

My own guess (that it was really the daughter desperate to get back to London) turned out to be wide of the mark and it has to be full marks to Sophie Hannah for making this square peg of a plot fit into the round hole of its resolution. However, the process of playing this family "game" becomes wearisome, improbable and at times so forced it is comical. The longing to return to the North Circular is explained, by the way, but by that time this confused reader had had enough.

In a recent interview, Hannah explained that A Game For All the Family is an attempt to examine the phenomenon of compulsive lying. So, clearly, she set herself a difficult task given that any novel, by virtue of requiring us to suspend our disbelief, is itself a form of lying.

Anne Garvey is a freelance writer

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