“The doorbell rang again. And again. She paced the living room. A half-empty bottle of wine stood open on the coffee table. She breathed. In for three, out for three. She pressed her hands against her ears. A normal person would go to the front door and see who was there.”
What would you do if you were agoraphobic, paranoid, housebound and isolated inside a big house on top of a hill, and suddenly on the eve of a giant snowstorm there is a strange teenage girl at your door, freezing, and begging for you to let her in?
This is the dilemma faced by Stella, the protagonist of Luana Lewis’s debut novel Don’t Stand So Close. Stella is a thirty-something psychologist, married to Max, her ex-boss and also a psychologist. The beginning of the novel plunges straight into Stella’s mind-set, which is confused, scared and irrational, and which hints at her dark past. Combine this with the arrival of Blue – the young and seemingly vulnerable teenager, who looks like an angel, but who obviously harbours some very disturbing secrets – and you have the perfect combination for nail-biting suspense.
The narrative weaves in and out of the past with chapters that deal with Stella’s earlier experiences as a psychologist, and chapters that describe a nameless young girl’s psychological sessions with her – also unnamed – male psychologist. Throughout these chapters, there are hints that make the reader question the reliability of the narrators, and question the characters’ perception of reality.
The author, who is a clinical psychologist herself and has also written two non-fiction books on trauma and resilience, is astute in her portrayal of mental instability, and depicts the little nuances that shape a character who has experienced psychological trauma to great effect. The characterisation of Blue in particular is raw and unsettling, and, seen through the eyes of Stella, the reader is presented with many different theories as to why Blue has shown up on her doorstep, and whether she is in fact dangerous or simply a young girl in need of protection.
As the night goes on, and an ex-boyfriend and then Stella’s husband both show up at the house, the question becomes whether Stella will ever be able to accept the truth that is slowly being revealed.
While the plotline of Don’t Stand So Close is not necessarily unique, and while the end chapters seem to lack some of the succinctness and pace of the earlier chapters, this is a book that is compelling and intriguing, and may leave you with a disturbing impression about the profession of psychology for a long time.