Penny Hancock's `Tideline' is the author's debut novel and, for a first book, this is an excellent start; it is unsettling, chilling and very gripping. Sonia, in her early forties, is a voice coach who teaches from her beautiful home in Greenwich, called River House, which is set beside the River Thames. Her husband, Greg, who is often away on business and her daughter, Kit, studying at university, are keen for Sonia to sell up, but Sonia grew up at River House, and now that the house has been left to her in her father's will, she is adamant that she will never move away. The river, she feels, is in her blood; her most intense moments of happiness and of sadness were experienced at River House and there is no way she will ever willingly leave it.
When Sonia answers her door one winter's day, she finds Jez, the fifteen-year-old nephew of her friend, Helen, calling to see if he might borrow an album that Sonia's husband offered him. Sonia invites Jez inside, pours him a drink, and whilst she sits watching him, she feels an overwhelming urge to keep him with her. She gives Jez too much alcohol, locks him in her husband's music room and plans how she can prevent him from leaving. Sonia's desire to keep Jez in her possession is prompted by traumatic events that happened when she was a teenager, when she felt an intense and obsessive love for Sebastian, a young man, who filled her every waking moment with a powerful need for him, and who left her under very tragic circumstances.
The telling of the story is divided between Sonia, in a first person narrative, and Helen in a third person narrative. The chapters narrated by Sonia are strong and almost claustrophobic, pulling the reader in immediately; we can feel Sonia's desperation and her intense need to keep Jez with her, so that even though we know she is behaving in an alarming and irrational manner, we almost feel a sympathy for her, for she is clearly psychologically unwell. As the story develops we learn why Sonia feels compelled to behave the way she does, what happened to her and Sebastian, and why her father felt it necessary to end his own life.
Although parts of this story may seem rather far-fetched, Penny Hancock writes convincingly and her descriptive language is very good, especially when she describes Sonia's feelings about the river; she writes: "When the tide's out, you can hear the water on the shingle. There's a constant background rhythm. But when it's in, the sounds can catch you off-guard. Haven't you heard the pontoon? It sounds like a child crying...and you get those sudden surges when a boat goes by, the ebb and the flow...like life..."
With this story (which I found somewhat reminiscent of John Fowles`The Collector') Penny Hancock has written a compelling and unsettling psychological thriller about the destructive power of obsession, of memories that won't remain dormant, and about the darkness that lies deep within.