The Drowning Lesson by Jane Shemilt

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The Drowning Lesson by Jane Shemilt

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Category: Thrillers
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Zoe Morris
Reviewed by Zoe Morris
Summary: A married couple take 3 children to Africa and return with 2 in a heart-breaking story of loss
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: September 2015
Publisher: Penguin
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1405915311

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Emma, a doctor from London, is somewhat reluctantly moving her family to Botswana for a year. In the choice between taking a new-born baby and his two primary-school-aged sisters to rural Africa for a year, or letting your husband go out there alone for work, she's decided that there's strength in numbers. Emma and Adam have a somewhat complex relationship that is disturbingly familiar to me. People who say 'not everything in life is a competition' are generally the ones who are losing, and I didn't doubt her for one moment when she said that she liked him to succeed… just as long as he wasn't succeeding more than her.

This is a story, though, where no one really wins. Despite having a household full of staff and a mother who is, for the main, at home with her children, something awful happens. Baby Sam vanishes from his cot without a trace. A British baby in an African country should be quite distinctive looking but the trail runs cold quite quickly, and even with dedicated police resources, Emma and Adam, and Alice and Zoë, find themselves isolated and alone.

If you enjoyed the debut Daughter you will not be disappointed by this book which seamlessly weaves medical jargon with family life and the arid African landscape. A few years ago I worked at a hospital in Africa and this book took me straight back to my time there, living in an incredibly under-developed area and struggling to comprehend the inadequacies of local healthcare. This is a story that if set in England would have been different on every level. In the real world of Portugal, the McCanns may have had many horrible things to deal with, but witch doctors and black magic were not one of these. The plot is chilling at times, and there are many aspects that made be physically shudder, such as what happens to Zoë's zoo.

The housekeeping staff add to the story but I found the lack of documented interactions with other locals really brought home how isolated the family were, how detached from their new environment, despite attempts to integrate. In Salone, my house was one of the largest in the town, second only to the Chief of Police's. I lived alone, in a 7 bedroom home that was embarrassingly over the top compared to the rest of my neighbours'. It is an odd position to be in and one you cannot prepare for, and this came across in Emma's voice. She was almost embarrassed to have staff, whereas looking back I'm now embarrassed I didn't, since it could have offered employment opportunities where they were sorely needed. Some may find it unlikely that someone who had help for her children in England (a live in au pair) would be so reluctant to engage staff abroad, but I completely understood. Coming with shoes on your feet, suitcases of belongings, laptops, cameras and, in my case, a small library of books to keep me company, into a place where people truly have nothing of the sort, the least you can do is show you're not too grand to sweep your own floors and wash your own clothes. By hand. In a bucket. Using cold water from the tap down the lane…

This book is told exclusively from Emma's point of view. She is an esteemed professional, successful in her field, and lives a nice life in London with her family when we first meet her. But things are not perfect. She struggles to be there for her patients while being there for her children. Her relationship is filled with a constant quest for one-upmanship, and memories of an imperfect childhood haunt her thoughts. The book is beautifully told, though, and it's impossible not to feel Emma's anguish when the son she is still nursing is taken. It's impossible to get closure with no ransom note, plausible explanation or even a body, as horrific as that sounds. It's the sort of circumstance many people could not live through and yet she has other children to care for, children who have their own issues pre-dating the disappearance of Sam. It's a hell of a lot for one person to deal with.

I enjoyed this book from the first page and found it everything I expected it to be. I understood the ending but I wished it could have dragged out a little longer. The final few pages of the book are actually a preview of Daughter so I didn't even realise it was over at that point. In my mind, and in my fingers, I still had another chapter to go, and I felt deprived of this.

That aside, this book comes with a very enthusiastic recommendation. It is incredibly easy to read without being overly simplistic. The story is all encompassing and I felt itchy with anticipation as I savoured every page, waiting to get there, anywhere, where things might become clearer.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending us a copy to review, and urge you to pick it up next time you're out and about. Like being a second child (ahem), it's hard to be a second book sometimes, but this one deserves just as much hype as Daughter.

The Good Neighbour by Beth Miller is another mystery that had me all intrigued.

Booklists.jpg The Drowning Lesson by Jane Shemilt is in the Top Ten Thrillers of 2015.

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Buy The Drowning Lesson by Jane Shemilt at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Drowning Lesson by Jane Shemilt at


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