The Hidden Hours is the fifth novel to be published by best-selling author, Sara Foster. It is written from the point of view of Eleanor Brennan, who at the age of twenty one, travels to London to begin a new life. She has repressed memories from her traumatic childhood, which come back to haunt her soon after her arrival, as she is caught up in the suspicious death of her work colleague, Arabella Lane. Eleanor is the last to see Arabella after the office Christmas party, but cannot remember the crucial hours that lead to her death.
Born and raised in England but now living in Perth, Western Australia, Sara Foster has juxtaposed these two countries beautifully in her latest book. The mystery of Arabella Lane’s death unfolds over the Christmas period during London’s freezing winter. Eleanor is staying at her uncle’s posh Notting Hill home and is employed as a temp at Parker & Lane, where her Aunt is CEO, and Arabella Lane was Director of Marketing and Publicity. The London setting, with its vibrant city buzz, offers a stark contrast to Eleanor’s childhood flashbacks, which show her living with her family in a metal shed during a scorching summer in rural Australia, while her parents build a new family home. Yet despite the polar-opposite settings, in both situations Eleanor is surrounded by undercurrents of marital discord and unhappy childhoods.
Sara’s writing provides vivid imagery, making both the settings and characters come to life. I found the story line plausible: a young Australian woman working in London, lonely and socially awkward, gets intoxicated at the Christmas party and can’t remember being with her boss’s wife at the time of her death, although CCTV cameras and eye witnesses place her at the scene. Her fear and frustration is believable, as is the urge to find out what happened that night, despite the risk of her buried childhood trauma resurfacing.
This book had ‘reader me’ fighting ‘writer me’ the whole way. I was curious as to what it was about Sara’s writing style that appealed to me so much, wanting to understand the techniques she had used that made it hard to put the book down. The reader in me wanted to fly through the book, skipping lines and closing out the rest of the world as I got to close to finding out ‘whodunnit’, eager to have the mystery resolved. While re-reading many sections, trying to figure out how it was put together, it dawned on me. The book is written in ‘deep point of view’, a technique I was aware of, but hadn’t quite crystallised in my mind until I read The Hidden Hours. A downside to using this technique is that it can be difficult for the author to divulge events occurring outside the main character’s knowledge without interrupting the story’s flow. However, by providing a snippet of information at the beginning of each chapter, which is clearly written in someonelse’s point of view, an additional layer of depth and interest, even foreboding, is added to the novel.
Another writing technique Sara used is that of the ‘unreliable narrator’. For me, this worked well as I found myself second-guessing through the whole book, often coming to the wrong conclusion, the clues were woven in so well. For example, I wasn’t sure whether Eleanor’s colleague and confidante throughout the police investigation, Will Clayton, was a good guy or bad guy until the end. Eleanor’s chaotic, swirling thoughts reflect the situation she finds herself in – not knowing who to trust and questioning her own loyalties to her extended family, who have provided her with a job and a roof over her head.
Whilst the novel is written in a fast-paced, present tense, the backstory relating to Eleanor’s traumatic childhood is blended in well. Again, this blending of past and present had me re-reading entire sections of the novel. It is the flashbacks to Eleanor’s childhood that allow the reader to understand why she is an anxious, fearful, young adult. We feel for her loss of childhood, her mother who is barely able to hold it together after her father is made redundant and comes up with a mad idea to build a house from scratch. We feel her hurt when she is ignored by her beloved older brother as he mixes with the wrong crowd, which leads to disaster. Not invited back for second playdates, we feel for her when she is discouraged from visiting the only person who has time for her, an elderly neighbour who is himself lonely. No wonder Eleanor doesn’t know who to turn to when faced with the shock of Arabella’s untimely death.
As well as her series of recently reprinted and rebranded novels (the new covers are stunning), Sara contributed a piece titled ‘The Landscape of Writing’ to an inspirational book for writers, Writing The Dream Anthology by Serenity Press. In her piece, Sara writes:
I see a lot more discussion and advice about plotting and characterisation in novel writing than I do on setting, and yet location is an integral part of every story. Those books that enter the public lexicon – from Room by Emma Donoghue to The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins – each have vividly imagined, unique settings that, once glimpsed, are forever identifiable to the reader.
She has definitely achieved this in her own novel.
I thoroughly enjoyed The Hidden Hours and followed it up immediately with her earlier work, Beneath The Shadows, which I also enjoyed. I’ll be watching out for future novels and in the meantime her previous novels are on my TBR pile.