Thursday, May 3, 2012

Book Review: Beneath the Shadows

 Title: Beneath the Shadows
Author: Sara Foster
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Imprint: Minotaur Books
Pub. Date: June 05, 2012
ISBN: 97803112643362

The plot summary from St. Martin’s: 

“When Grace’s husband, Adam, inherits an isolated North Yorkshire cottage, they leave the bustle of London behind to try a new life. A week later, Adam vanishes without a trace, leaving their baby daughter, Millie, in her stroller on the doorstep. The following year, Grace returns to the tiny village on the untamed heath.  Everyone—the police, her parents, even her best friend and younger sister—is convinced that Adam left her. But Grace, unable to let go of her memories of their love and life together, cannot accept this explanation.  .  . As Grace hunts through forgotten corners of the cottage searching for clues, and digs deeper into the lives of the locals, strange dreams begin to haunt her.  .  . Only as snowfall threatens to cut her and Millie off from the rest of the world does Grace make a terrible discovery. She has been looking in the wrong place for answers all along, and she and her daughter will be in terrible danger if she cannot get them away in time.”

False advertising in a publisher’s marketing copy can create significant problems for the reader if the copy is read before the book. Though I suspect that the inaccuracy was a well-intentioned attempt to convey the essence of Beneath the Shadows, I struggled for many pages to find the novel that St. Martin’s described as “a thrilling gothic debut that evokes Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca and Arthur Conan Doyle's Hound of the Baskervilles.” If you’re looking for Gothic thrills, this is not your novel.  The plot and prose are far too reserved to attract readers in search of a mystery with psychological sturm un drang. It’s reminiscent of Rebecca only in that the main character happens to be reading Rebecca in several scenes.

When I moved beyond the publisher’s description that initially piqued my interest, I found myself quickly warming to a very different novel. On her website, Australian writer Sara Foster shares a much more accurate description of her second novel: “It is being likened to books by Sophie Hannah and Rosamund Lupton.” In its quiet way, Beneath the Shadows sneaks up on the reader, gathering momentum from its slow beginning to increase the pace and tension until the very end.

The beautifully depicted setting is practically a character in its own right. Grace is immediately engaging, though her character is not greatly fleshed out or distinctive. We understand Grace only in relation to others, despite the first person narration. Though Grace is not a particularly complex character, she is more than likeable enough to compel the reader to follow her story to its not unexpected conclusion.

Problematically, a number of sub plots and characters are brought to the forefront, only to fade into insignificance. It was unclear to me why the best friend who’s been in unrequited love with Grace forever was part of the story. Grace’s numerous fruitless calls to a police detective that end with the detective not taking her concerns very seriously didn’t serve to ratchet up the tension or depict Grace as isolated. The natural landscape which thwarts Grace’s attempts at escape is far more successful as a device to accomplish these ends.

Scenes that could have been dramatized to great effect, such as the retrieval of Adam’s body from its makeshift grave, are glossed over.   A number of characters are not fleshed out, resulting in a lack of connection that makes it difficult to care about their fate. The most problematic character is Adam, the missing husband. Since Adam isn’t present, it’s natural that he feels frustratingly undefined. But the dramatic tension would have been greatly heightened had I questioned for a moment whether Adam had abruptly left his family, as opposed to dying. Because Grace is so convinced that he wouldn’t have run off, it never feels like a possibility.

Despite its missteps, the novel is compelling. Its charm lies mainly in the realistic portrayal of Grace’s relationship with her daughter Millie and in its careful rendering of the Yorkshire hamlet so small that Grace’s sister Annabel says,“I'm not sure this place even qualifies as a hamlet--you just live on the road to somewhere else. " The joys, tedium and constant attention required to care for a fifteen month old are rendered perfectly. Unlike some novels in which a child feels like a prop that’s stowed away for pages at a time, Grace’s responsibility to care for Millie grounds the plot. In the end, this solid depiction pays off in reader investment when Grace acts decisively to protect her child.

In short, this is a book that I read it one sitting, staying up late because I was anxious to learn the truth behind the various mysteries presented.  Yet when I was done, my nerves weren’t frayed by adrenaline, and I slept easily. If you’re looking for a fast-paced mystery that delivers mild thrills, Beneath the Shadows is an excellent choice. 

Disclosure: I received a copy of this book for review purposes from


  1. This book sounds very interesting. The image of the baby carriage in the snow if very striking!

    1. I love, love, love the cover. It's perfect.