At first sight, Catherine Ravenscroft, the central character of Renée Knight’s novel Disclaimer, is a fairly ordinary character – as a successful career woman with a penchant for producing award-winning documentaries, she lives in a modern house in one of London’s nicer suburbs, is happily married and mother to a grown son. On most accounts her life seems pretty straightforward. Sure, there is that unexplained tension between her and her son Nicholas, a dope-smoking store assistant, and the fact that her and her husband Robert appear to be carefully tip-toeing around each other, but even that could be regarded as fairly ordinary. That is, until Catherine begins to read a novel entitled “The Perfect Stranger”, and suddenly her life begins to fall apart.
Renee Knight, an ex-documentary maker herself and first time novelist, asks the question: what if someone takes a secret from your past – that only you and one other person know of, and that other person is dead – and turns it into a novel? A novel that inadvertently shows up at your house, then your son’s house, then the neighbourhood bookshops, and finally your husband’s office; a novel that invades every aspect of the life you have built for yourself, and from which there seems to be no escape.
The answer to that question is played out with great skill by Renée Knight, who makes good use of the “novel within a novel” device as she juxtaposes stories and voices. Sited in between Catherine, Nicholas and Robert’s voices, as well as the other central voice of Stephen Brigstocke – an elderly, lonely widower, who listens to the ghost voice of his deceased wife Nancy – is “The Perfect Stranger,” the novel that reveals so much about a past that Catherine has been keeping a secret, but is the novel fact of fiction? There is a sense of unreliability to the narrators and voices, all of whom seem to possess, or at least tell, only a part of the truth.
As the plot evolves, and things begin to look increasingly grim, Knight succeeds in planting some genuinely surprising plot developments, which are presented with aptitude and a good sense of timing. The author also manages to keep us one step removed from the truth by keeping most of the characters at arm’s length – apart from the Stephen Brigstocke, whose first person narrative allows the reader to be intimately acquainted with his (slowly deteriorating) mind – the other characters are seen through a somewhat ambiguous and distant lens.
The plot presents a variety of themes – including guilt, motherhood, and the effects of seeing only what we choose to see – in an engaging and complex way, which provides the narrative with a sense of unity throughout the ambiguity and tension. Disclaimer is a novel that manages to really play out with intelligence the notion of a thriller, and is most definitely one of those books that will have you turning those pages until the end.