THE FOSTER CHILD
by JENNY BLACKHURST
*My thanks to Millie Seaward at Headline for an advance copy of this novel in return for an honest and unbiased review*
All I can say is that it is a good job I already have Jenny Blackhurst's other novels stored on my kindle for a rainy day because rain or not, I am off to read them this minute. I can't believe I've not read them already - it's shocking. I totally underestimated how much I would enjoy this author and how much I would enjoy The Foster Child. It is such a good book.
Initially when I looked at the blurb, I thought I was in for a relatively straight forward thriller. All the components are set for an emotional, dramatic and tense read. The main character is Imogen, a child psychologist, who takes on the case of 11 year old Ellie who everyone believes to be dangerous. Ellie is the only survivor of a fire that killed her family and Imogen is determined to prove that this girl is just sad, grieving, angry and misunderstood rather than anything more sinister. But then there are too many incidents when Ellie is around, too many bad things happening around her and once upset, Ellie seems incapable of controlling herself. Convinced she can help Ellie, Imogen continues to fight Ellie's corner, even when it means she might be putting herself in danger.
It's an intriguing set up and anything with exploring complex family issues is going to make for a powerful read. I was hooked by Imogen's character and her drive to get involved with Ellie and I liked that there was plenty of backstory to her character providing conflict, tension and depth as the plot unfolded. I liked the tension between Ellie and her foster family. I liked the dark atmosphere that was built from the mean way she was treated by others and then the one liners that slip from Ellie's mouth, which had I not been able to reread the words on the page, I might have thought I had misheard.
This is where the genius of the writing begins. Anyone who reads my blog regularly will know I love a bit of the ghostly, a bit of the supernatural, a lot of the unreliable narrator and a whole load of unnerving atmosphere. I love a novel with a hint of something so deeply unsettling that you are unable to do anything except read, read, read and read. The Foster Child is one such novel. The book starts off in a relatively straight forward way as we would expect from this genre; a set up that implies threat, suggests complications, raises questions and flags up things to watch out for but don't be fooled... Blackhurst has much more planned for these characters - and the reader! - and there is nothing straight forward or average about this story at all. Beware. This is compelling, gripping and so so dark!
As I mentioned before, there are two main characters. Imogen is hardworking, kind and dedicated. She immediately connects with Ellie and gains the reader's empathy. However there are plenty of hints that things are not all rosy and suggestions that things in her previous job did not end well. She is also haunted by her own mother's behaviour towards her. The line between carer, psychologist, mother and friend are all blurred for Imogen as she tries to confront her own fears, her own issues and her professional responsibility towards Ellie. Things are muddled, complicated and murky for Imogen but Blackhurst has used this so effectively to explore the role of fostering, motherhood and love. Ultimately I was on Imogen's side and I enjoyed the well observed relationships she formed with the other characters in the story and the journey she found herself travelling.
Ellie is equally well crafted. She is a young girl, traumatised by a terrible past and on the receiving end of unkind remarks and judgements by the community. It is really odd the way people respond to her and the reader is quickly alerted to the fact that something about Ellie frightens people - properly frightens them.
Blackhurst has created characters who provoke a strong emotional responses from the reader and actually, this whole book is crammed with powerful emotions of hate, revenge, cruelty and violence. The bullying is vividly depicted and there are some very intense scenes to read. However, it never felt sensational to me. Because the dynamics between the characters are realistic and believable, we are rooted firmly in an authentic feeling, contemporary world and that is what makes this novel such addictive and thrilling reading.
As the novel progresses there are clues, hints and suggestions that something much darker is going on and there is some sense of (deliberate) confusion as the reader tries to make sure they understand what is happening. Blackhurst plays with us. After hooking us in to a story we think to be about a damaged child and her psychologist who wants a happy ending, we then have to start reconsidering what we are being told against what we can see happening. Slowly the jigsaw starts to take shape but still with glaring holes and still with some pieces that just don't quite fit where they should.
I was gripped and as soon as I realised there was something rather special going on, I rattled through the second half of the novel without being able to put it down. It's hard to talk about the twists and finale without spoilers but the revelations and connections between the converging plot lines are woven together beautifully. This story is so delicious in its darkness, so spine chilling suspenseful that the reader is perpetually asking questions and having to reassess all they thought they knew.
The Foster Child is a great read. A page turner. A novel that raises questions about how we treat people, how we decide what makes a good parent or how we respond to the responsibility of parenting. It raises issues about your past and the impact it has on your present; about second chances, about girls, families and memory. And ultimately, it's about perception and reality.
This book comes with a quote from Lisa Hall who calls Blackhurst "an evil genius". I love this quote and think it captures my final thoughts perfectly!
I'm so pleased I discovered Blackhurst and that I have two others of her books to go and enjoy now - it's reducing my sense of loss since finishing the book. Nothing else beats a good, read-it-one-day-just-a-great-pageturner-and-wow-I-did-not-see-that-coming, psychological thriller. Read it.
The Foster Child is published by Headline on 16th November 2017.