SUMMARY – The 10-second review
Set in Dublin – Very gripping psychological thriller – Great tension and pacing – Very well written – Highly recommended – Author to watch.
It’s clear from the opening sentence of A Good Father that we’re in for something deeply disturbing:
“By the end of next summer, before the kids go back to school, I will kill my family.”
The novel is a chilling portrait of a psychopathic mind. It recounts the day-to-day life of a family in Killiney, an upscale coastal suburb of Dublin, as narrated by husband and father Des. Chapters set in the present (2017) alternate with chapters set in the 1990s, when Des met, wooed and married Jenny. From the start, the relationship is fraught. Des is controlling and manipulative. But Jenny, who has a history of similar relationships, sees only a loving and attentive man who supports and defends her. She is blind to the warning signs.
In the present, they have three children. Des narrates his routine of making family meals, taking the kids to football practice, bedtime stories and nights out with his wife.
But Des is an unreliable narrator. And every now and then he drops a bombshell that shatters the image of perfect family life. For example, in the middle of rambling thoughts while playing with the kids, comes this:
“When I hit [Jenny], which isn’t often, I am careful not to go too deep around her cheekbones because her cheekbones are a great feature of hers.”
And then it’s back to the kids. From the start, you’ve known that things are very wrong. The fact that the domestic violence is, mostly, only hinted at, or mentioned as an aside, rather than described in detail, only makes it more revolting. But Des depicts such an image of happy family life that at times you wonder if you’ve misread. You start doubting your own understanding of what is happening.
Psychological suspense at its best
A Good Father is a very well written novel, finely balanced. Talbot has a powerful, confident voice. As a debut novel, it’s astonishingly good.
The pacing is superb. The story evolves slowly, so the suspense is almost unbearable. You helplessly watch Jenny and the kids, waiting for the inevitable, dreading it. The looming threat of violence is more effective than lots of blood and gore.
Minor spoiler alert. Click to show more or skip this!
You know early on that Des is abusive, but is it rare? Frequent? It’s hard to tell because he is the sole narrator and everything is sugar-coated. But his true character gradually emerges. You can only wonder why his wife and children appear so calm, even happy. In one scene, he overhears his daughter Maeve berating her two brothers and he’s surprised when they all laugh. They are actually playing, acting out one of their father’s temper tantrums, and laughing at it — a classic coping method of abused children. Jenny seems distant most of the time. Dissociation, perhaps? A history of abuse before she even met Des is suggested.
The author does not shove the psychology of the characters’ actions and interactions in your face, but it’s there and it’s perceptively and delicately done. This makes this novel stand out from similar books, where the psychology is often rather clichéd and trite.
It also stands out for the quality of the writing. At the risk of sounding patronizing, here’s a writer who knows how to handle the ‘show, don’t tell’ technique. Much is suggested and hinted at, rather than plainly described. And this itself is balanced with scenes that are described in painstaking detail.
Catherine Talbot is an author I’ll be keeping an eye on; I hope she has more books in the pipeline.
My thanks to the publisher, the author and Netgalley for giving me a free copy of this book. All my reviews are 100% honest and unbiased, regardless of how I acquire the book.
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