The Primrose Path by Rebecca Griffiths
The Primrose Path is the story of a woman who was abducted by a rapist and held prisoner for 11 days when she was 19, only escaping when her attacker's crimes were discovered by his wife, whom he then murdered in a fit of rage. Now in her 30s, Sarah has inherited some money from her beloved father and, upon learning John Blundell is about to be released from prison, she dyes her blonde hair brown, changes her name to Rachel and moves to rural Wales to start a new life, without telling even her mother where she's gone.
She soon settles into her new home - but with Blundell about to leave jail any moment, how long can she remain anonymous? Moreover, the land on which her barn conversion stands has a dark history, and the man who once owned it is a lecherous truck-driver who stares at her through the window, keeps dogs locked in a shed and obsesses over his dead mother's clothes. Meanwhile, across the border in Somerset, a serial killer is preying on young blonde women, and back in Muswell Hill Rachel's mother has made a shocking discovery in her late husband's study.
As you can probably tell from that synopsis, there's quite a lot going on in this book, with several plot strands diverging and then reconvening as the story progresses. There are third-person chapters from the point of view of several characters, most notably Rachel herself, and italicised first-person chapters narrated by the unnamed Somerset serial killer. These are as dark as you'd expect them to be, but actually nowhere near as hard to read as the chapters which deal with Rachel's neighbour Idris, a man so utterly without redeeming features and so physically disgusting (hygiene isn't his thing) that I rather came to dread his appearances. It's important for the story that Idris is a grubby, socially isolated and fully dysfunctional weirdo, but there's only so many times you can read about how badly a man smells and how dirty his clothes are before it starts to feel like overkill. In fact, repetitiveness is one of my biggest issues with The Primrose Path - we are reminded of the same things far too many times over the course of the story and while I generally enjoy books that build atmosphere slowly, the lack of pace to this book is a problem at times and there are better ways of conveying certain things, such as the remoteness of Rachel's new house, without explicitly mentioning them quite so frequently.
This is also a book with a protagonist, in Rachel, that I disliked from the outset. While I certainly don't have to like a character to enjoy a book about them, unfortunately it does matter in this case: if you don't take much to Rachel at an early stage, it greatly reduces the impact of certain events that happen later on.
I did, however, enjoy the way that Rebecca Griffiths drops in more and more small details about Rachel as the story unfolds, making you question your assumptions. I also enjoyed some of the supporting characters, particularly Tracey, a farmer's wife who befriends Rachel; Dai, who has his own connection to Rachel's new home; and Rachel's mother Jennifer, who isn't a particularly pleasant woman but certainly a very interesting one, possibly the most interesting in the book.
If you like books with surprising twists, The Primrose Path isn't lacking in that regard. There's more than one of them and I didn't see the main shock coming - it's very cleverly executed right from the start, so all credit to Rebecca Griffiths for this. It's only when it's been revealed that you realise the clues were there all along, and want to kick yourself. However, there's also another surprise that comes as part of the serial killer subplot, and this was much less satisfactory. It's not only something of a cop-out plot-wise but also wildly improbable, and in combination with other elements of the story I think some might even perceive a note of borderline misogyny (although I strongly doubt this was in any way intentional). The ending also felt very rushed to me, particularly given how slowly the plot proceeds early on.
Overall, The Primrose Path is a dark and cleverly-plotted novel. The characters are vividly portrayed and the Welsh setting is beautifully evoked. I did feel, however, that it had some significant flaws, so it gets three stars from me rather than four or five.