Rob Price
Gutbrain Records
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2023 February 01 • Wednesday

Foyles bookshop in London has always rewarded our visits.

Not only is it thrillingly well stocked, but it frequently offers up authors that, we fear, otherwise might not have come to our attention.

The most recent example is Celia Dale, whose book A Helping Hand caught our eye. It was in a brand new paperback edition with an intriguing “The queen of suburban horror” from The Times on the front.

That turned out to be quite apt, as was Ruth Rendell’s “quiet, clever, subtle — and terrifying”. Those are indeed the words.

Josh and Maisie Evans are unremarkable, unattractive, middle-aged Brits who live in a squalid part of London. Dale paints the picture so vividly and precisely that you might start reading faster just to get away from it:

“But the new roads which served no purpose but to lace one road to another, and all of them eventually to the arterial road, were edged with bungalows, each different from the other yet all without individuality, flat to the ground, centred in grass and lobelia, each with its own television aerial. Their inhabitants were mostly middle-aged or old. There were no children.
The land that stretched around them was as featureless as themselves: fields of drab vegetables, sports grounds belonging to some nearby factory, a rubbish tip, a display ground for caravans, or just ground — stony, sparsely grassed, scattered with coltsfoot and shepherd’s purse, bounded by slack wire. And beyond it, flatter than the sea, flatter certainly than the Sahara, the unseen, omnipresent, vast void of the airport.

This description carries considerable impact in the book, appearing after a significant chunk of time is spent with the Evanses in sunny coastal Italy.

They’re on vacation but also looking for someone to be their next victim. They like to lend a helping hand, you see, to old women who live isolated lives but have some money to speak of in some combination of savings, pension and inheritance. They take them in as their Paying Guest and slowly, sadistically, insidiously kill them — but only after a slow murder of their spirit and intelligence.

Maisie Evans used to be a nurse and Dale lets that fact, remarked often by both Evanses, speak for itself. At no point is it said that poison or drugs are employed, or that Mrs. Evans knows how to destroy a body simply by isolating, confining and controlling it. But the reader will certainly have that impression.

Mr. Evans is disgustingly lusty and perverse. Inappropriate sexual impulses and fantasies dominate his thoughts and the occasions when he acts on them are stomach-churning.

Into their web falls elderly widow Cynthia Fingal and, a little later, another character who provides a shocking contrast to the placid drama of Mrs. Fingal’s gradual, inexorable, inhumane and all too believable destruction.

Dale is one of those writers whose every sentence has something to admire. And few can equal the precision with which she indicates how unpleasant people can be behind their masks, using the deftest and most minimal touches to direct our attention to deceit, manipulation and madness.

At some point in reading this novel you might start to experience serious anxiety about how it’s going to end. You should.

The first line is “Mrs Maisie Evans came into the lounge, pulling down the cuffs of her cardigan”.