Book review: Down by the Water, by Elle Connel

A hen weekend in a Borders castle goes disastrously wrong in this psychological thriller, but it’s hard to care much about what happens to the self-absorbed characters, writes Joyce McMillan

Elle Connel, aka Lucy Ribchester

In an age when claiming victimhood has become, for some, an essential passport to membership of the human race, it’s perhaps not surprising that our culture gives an unusual prominence to those few negative experiences that still, unavoidably, affect the wealthy 1 per cent or so almost as much as the rest of us. The shock of bereavement, and the mental health problems that may surround it, is one of those ills; and it’s around a tragic and horrifying death, now more than ten years in the past, but still ferociously mourned by those closest to it, that Elle Connel – better known as successful historical thriller writer Lucy Ribchester – constructs her new psychological thriller, Down By The Water, set in a small Borders castle now up for let as a weekend Airbnb.

In essence, Down By The Water is the story of how a group of seven women most of us would cross the street to avoid arrive at the castle to celebrate the hen-party weekend of Georgie, a rich London product developer who is about to marry a man called Jack. With her come the five women who were her best friends at St Andrews University a decade ago, plus the female partner of one of them; she has invited the five to be her bridesmaids even though most of them have been out of touch for years, and to join her on a riotous final weekend of single life.

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There are Alice and Rachael, “the lesbians”, as two members of the group refer to them; there’s Melissa, a pretty vet now working in Suffolk; there’s Bea, a nice librarian and mother of twins; Harriet, the aspiring novelist now reduced – in her own eyes – to writing a successful blog about motherhood; Georgie herself, beautiful, charismatic and wild; and sensible Tessa, the exhausted A&E doctor who organises the weekend, and at first appears as something like our reliable narrator, although she later turns out to be about as unreliable as is reasonably – or unreasonably – possible.

Down by the Water, by Elle Connel

What these women do, during Georgie’s increasingly disastrous hen weekend, is to consume staggering quantities of expensive booze and illegal substances, while sniping unpleasantly at each other’s weaknesses, and undergoing a series of minor traumas – a ghostly apparition at the lochside, an adder in the plumbing, the apparent loss of most of the food they brought from London, and a storm that strands them in the castle for an extra night – that is viewed with strange equanimity by the laconic estate manager, Tom, from his nearby cottage, and eventually culminates in a major revelation, at least for the readers. The structure and atmosphere of the story is strong, boldly using a discovered diary to drive the plot towards its conclusion, as nice Bea takes over the central narrator role; and Connel is often wryly aware of the privileged position of her characters, as Bea comments on the “cruelty” that seems an intrinsic part of wealth.

Yet in the end, Connel seems unable to escape from the intense self-absorption of the privileged, and the assumption that their cruel shenanigans, and the profound ignorance of the basic facts of each other’s lives on which the plot depends, are both “relatable” and somehow normal. At one point, Georgie the bride declares herself impressed that “nobody has vomited yet” since their arrival at the castle. And given the amount of her otherwise powerful prose Connel expends on strange, subjective descriptions of her characters’ emotionally charged bodily processes – their stomachs are forever sinking or rising, their skin tingling in odd places, their guts knotting and breath panting – it’s difficult not to share Georgie’s surprise; along with a strong urge to nominate the whole crew as early candidates for the firing squad, when the revolution finally comes.

Down by the Water, by Elle Connel, Published by Wildfire Press, £18.99

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