Book Review: ‘Fragile’ by Sarah Hilary

Everything she touches breaks…

Nell Ballard is a runaway. A former foster child with a dark secret she is desperate to keep, all Nell wants is to find a place she can belong.

So when a job comes up at Starling Villas, how to the enigmatic Robin Wiilder, she seizes the opportunity with both hands.

But her new lodgings may not be the safe haven that she was hoping for. Her employer lives by a set of rigid rules and she soon sees that he is hiding secrets of his own.

But is Nell’s arrival at the Villas really the coincidence it seems? After all, she knows more than most how fragile people can be – and how easy they can be to break…

Fragile is a dark, contermporary psychological thriller with a modern Gothis twist from an award-winning and critically acclaimed writer who has been compared to Ruth Rendell, P.D. James and Val McDermid. Rebecca meets The Handmaid’s Tale in Sarah Hilary’s standalone breakout novel.

First of all, let me start my saying that I found this to be a very enjoyable read – I devoured it in a weekend. I was immediately drawn to Nell, and the author created empathy through strong characterisation and a really interesting backstory. We soon find out that Nell has escaped from one life but may have inadvertedly fallen into a worse trap than she’d been in before. She is fragile, and the lives of others around her echo this fragility.

I wanted to hold something fragile in my hands, to think very hard about what I was about to do. Lifting an egg from the box, I cradled it in my fist. If you apply pressure to the top and bottom of hte shell, finidng the points of greatest resistance, you can’t crush an egg no matter how hard you try.

from ‘Fragile

I was excited to read this book after hearing it compared to both ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and ‘Rebecca’, which are two books that I’ve loved reading. ‘Rebecca’? Yes. Hilary has captured the voice of Daphe Du Maurier here in the tone of youth and optimism overcoming, and even being blind-sighed to, oppression. There are reflective passages where reality dawns on Nell, that match those of ‘Rebecca’s’ protagonist, and Mrs Wilder can certainly be seen as a domineering echo of the former Mrs de Winter. ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’? Nope. Nell goes to the local shops, has a rota of jobs to complete (rota irked me – ‘schedule’, surely?), and has sex, but she’s chosen to work for Robin, can leave whenever she wants, is paid and the sex is consensual. This is hardly a feminist statement of oppression and male-dominance in society, in fact the two most domineering characters are both female.

There is a real ‘energy’ to this story. Nell is hard-working and unafraid to get stuck in to a task. We hear about her cleaning at Wilder’s and cleaning at her foster home. And there is a joy to her clearning, a real enthusiasm that carries the reader along with it. When I can’t be bothered to do housework, watching something like ‘Filthy House SOS’ for half and hour will normally give me the motivation I need to whip out the bleach and attack the clutter. This novel, strangely, had the same effect on me. I’m pretty sure that this wasn’t the author’s intended effect, but this novel will make you want to clean!

I wasn’t quite sure how this joy of cleaning really sat with Nell’s feeling that she is perhaps trying to punish herself. For all that I could grasp, she takes a pride in sorting out the old house, fantacises about it’s past, and takes joy in returning it to a homely environment. Rather than this being a dark, psychological thriller, I found many sections to be rather inspirational – her attic makeover is certainly pinterest-worthy.

As a teacher of English, I really appreciated the gorgeous figurative langauge in this novel, which is so often missing from thrillers. I now have a life goal of owning a Japanese Kintsukoroi bowl, which Hilary described so beautifully, winding the symbolism effortlessly through her narrative, and highlighting Nell’s own fragility. The parts of the novel that I found most chilling were the descriptions of Nell’s life before her arrival at Starling Villas. As a mum, anything to do with children being mistreated always makes me feel particularly uncomfortable, and for this reason I really disliked the character of Meagan. Could Hilary have gone further with the descriptions of life at Lyle’s? Absolutely. Am I glad that she didn’t? Yup. Equally, other authors may have gone to town with details of disfunctional dometic relationships – there was certainly the opportunity for it here – but I rather preferred this ‘soft’ version of abuse. Not the dark portrayal that I’d expected after reading the above synopsis from the publisher, but one that I was comfortable reading.

He’d wanted a servant, that’s what I was. All I was. To imagine anything more was vanity. Worse, it was a trap. Secretly, all men want a slave, someone to do exactly as she’s told.”

from ‘Fragile’

There were, however, parts of this book that didn’t really seem to link together. The novel starts with the idea that Nell has a definite purpose in choosing to work for, and live with, Robin Wilder. It sounds like she knows what to expect, and that her reason to be there is merely to track down Joe. What confused me, was that (a) there is no need for her to be at Wilder’s in order to find Joe, and (b) she doesn’t leave once she’s found him. I also didn’t really understand why Nell allowed the relationship with Wilder to progress to the extent it did, when she appeared to be pretty clued up on his intentions. I wonder whether Hilary’s vision for the narrative changed as she wote it, and that maybe a few loose ends didn’t quite get tied up.

In conclusion, if you’re looking for an interesting domestic read with a twist, this is the book for you, and personally, I really enjoyed it. I’d go as far to say that it may even be classed as a YA thriller. However, if you’re searching for a dark, psychological thriller, than you may be a little disappointed.

‘Fragile’ is due to be published by Pan Macmillan on 10th June 2021.

Thank you to Net Galley UK and Pan Macmillan for this ARC in exchange for my honest review.

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