The Night Following by Morag Joss

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The Night Following by Morag Joss

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Fiona Thompson
Reviewed by Fiona Thompson
Summary: A startlingly original and surprising tale of grief and guilt.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 368 Date: November 2009
Publisher: Gerald Duckworth and Co
ISBN: 978-0715638811

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Distracted by the discovery that her husband has been having an affair, a middle-aged woman loses concentration while driving along a quiet lane, killing Ruth Mitchell, an elderly cyclist. The woman doesn't wait for the police to arrive; she goes home and parks her car in the garage where she smashes it almost beyond recognition. When her arrogant husband sees the damage he believes it's been done to punish him and he packs his bags. After a few days the woman goes to the home of the dead woman; she doesn't go to the door, but from a hidden spot nearby she can see the widower, an elderly gentleman who is clearly not coping well. Wracked with guilt, the woman makes a decision: the only way she can atone for her actions is to step into the shoes of the dead woman.

If Morag Joss starts all her novels in such dramatic style I must read more of them! The Night Following crams as much into its first pages as many novels contain from cover to cover; a discovery of infidelity, a fatal accident, the hiding of evidence and even the end of a marriage. It's to the author's credit that this wonderful opening engages rather overpowers.

What is superficially a simple story is beautifully expanded by the method of its telling. The driver (the reader doesn't learn her name) gives her account in the first person while the widower's point of view comes from the series of letters he, reluctantly at first, writes to his dead wife, when a bereavement counselor suggests it might be of help. Finally interspersed into the story are chapters from a novel, a family saga, which Ruth Mitchell had been writing before her death. Gradually the three strands intertwine creating a brilliant tapestry around the impact of this one terrible event.

Arthur's letters to his dead wife are a joy to read. He's initially sceptical about the value of such an exercise but, more to placate his bereavement counsellor than because he thinks it will help him, he finally puts pen to paper. At first the letters are short, often asking the whereabouts of some household item or another; later his letters become more lengthy as he feels more at ease with the idea. His letters are a window to his real feelings; his growing agitation is noticed by his neighbours, first through his reaction to them and later through his increasingly bizarre dress and his night time activities. When Arthur starts to wear the clothes that Ruth had bought him for their forthcoming cruise, it is at once humorous and deeply tragic.

Ruth's novel is an engaging interlude that seems to vaguely allude to events within the story and the past experiences of the main characters. What I liked most about this thread was that Morag Joss has really captured the sounds of a first novel as the writer's skill is refined. However, its place within The Night Following is not essential and it merely provides a pleasant distraction rather than an intrinsic part of the story.

There's an issue with credibility - can the reader believe that the police never knock on the woman's door - but it's nothing that really spoils this hugely original and well-told story. There is much to admire and enjoy in The Night Following. It's difficult to pigeon-hole this fine novel into any one genre. Ultimately it's an exceptional study of grief and guilt but Morag Joss has woven this very simple idea into a rich tapestry of a story that is at once a romance, a thriller and a psychological drama. Sure to be relished by readers who appreciate a good story well told, The Night Following is an unexpected delight.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Another novel that charts the fallout from a chance event is The Chameleon's Shadow by Minette Walters.

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