‘The Family Upstairs’: Another Addicting Domestic Thriller From Novelist Lisa Jewell
Eighteen books in, Lisa Jewell excels at domestic suspense.
The London-based writer consistently plumbs both the mysteries at hand and the societal pressures that fuel her characters. In The Girls in the Garden, she uses an attack on a young teen as the foil to explore different styles of motherhood and the grass-is-greener lure of another’s spouse. In I Found You, she excavates the impact of memories as part of her tale of an amnesiac who appears near a single mother’s home.
So it makes sense that her newest, The Family Upstairs, is on one level the horrific backstory of Libby Jones, found alone in her crib, the only survivor of an apparent group suicide. But this addicting thriller is also about identity, family, and most of all, the dark side of charisma.
As the novel opens, it’s Libby’s 25th birthday, and she’s just found out that she’s inherited a home in the posh Chelsea section of London. Sixteen Cheyne Walk is no windfall, though. Libby discovers in swift succession the grisly scenario that led her to be adopted at 10 months, a rabbit’s foot keychain left for her in the crib, and disturbing noises upstairs at her new, supposedly unoccupied, house.
Jewell rotates narration in The Family Upstairs among a trio of key characters. Besides Libby, there’s Lucy, a mother of two busking on street corners in a French beach town to scrape together enough money for a trip to England.
And there are flashbacks from Henry Lamb, who’s 10 in 1988 when Birdie arrives at the Cheyne Walk house: “We thought she had just come to stay for the weekend.”
Henry’s mother Martina is gorgeous and well-appointed, like the Lamb family’s life at the beginning. There’s private school for Henry and his sister, bespoke suits and weekend hunting parties for their father, a part-time PR business for Martina. When Birdie’s band wants to use the Lamb home to film a video, an excited Martina consents. And when Birdie and her partner Justin get kicked out of their flat, Martina–a sucker for a sob story–agrees to let them stay.
“As an adult man now of forty-one years old I have often used this refrain to get people to do what I want them to do,” Henry says. “I didn’t know who else to turn to. It gives the person you’re trying to manipulate nowhere to go. Their only option is to capitulate.”
Once Birdie and Justin settle in, others follow. The most dangerous is David Thomsen, who arrives initially as a physiotherapist to help Henry’s father recuperate from a mild stroke. David possesses the distinctive combination of visceral charisma and personality disorder necessary for any cult leader. He quickly takes over, and soon the family has gone down a Walden Pond rabbit hole, adopting a sparks-no-joy simplicity of dark robes, herbal medicine, homemade Pilates machines and endless rules.
This is the most intriguing of the three narrative threads, and not just because it provides the answers that readers want from the jump. Libby teams with a journalist to dive into her birth family’s background, but seeing the secrets unspool in real time is far more diverting. Lucy clearly has ties to Cheyne Walk, and while the particulars of her odyssey with her children are heartbreaking, the slow slide of the Lambs from prosperous family to misguided, abusive commune is what eclipses all else. It’s horror beyond the paranormal, because it centers on the evil that humans do to each other.
“Our household had curdled and transmogrified into something monstrous,” Henry says, a full two years before the awful events that leave Libby alone in her crib. Monstrous, yes–but you won’t rest until the truth emerges in the final pages of The Family Upstairs.
(Atria/Simon & Schuster, Nov. 5, 2019)