Sometimes, as the tagline to Rachel Abbott’s novel suggests, the quietest places really do hide the darkest secrets. The quiet village of Little Melham is the kind of place that might feature in Midsomer Murders: a seemingly idyllic, prosperous corner of the English countryside, which actually hides a host of nasty secrets and is inhabited by a surprising number of treacherous schemers. The dark underbelly of village life is revealed one night when a teenage girl is hit by a car, and left for dead by the side of the road – “the Back Road” of the title.
There are actually two guilty parties: the motorist who hit young Abbie, and the person who was chasing her through the woods prior to the accident. Who these people are, and – in the case of the second person – why, are the intertwined questions running through this book.
At a dinner party in the village the following night, it becomes clear that several people have something to hide – something that may, or may not, be connected with the hit-and-run incident. What is surprising is just how many of these seemingly respectable, seemingly privileged people are leading double lives and engaging in various forms of deceit. Abbott is good at peeling away the layers of ordinary middle class life and examining its occasionally rotten core. Many of these people are shallow, materialistic, and conniving – and, sadly, all too plausible. The nouveau riche have rarely been presented in a less attractive light.
Sisterhood, and the occasionally tangled and tortuous threads of family life, are ongoing themes in the narrative. Two of the large cast of characters, sisters Ellie and Leo, share an unhappy past and a mystery that continues to plague them. Leo – haunted and troubled by her miserable personal history, but nevertheless trying hard to live with her own flaws and make good despite them – is the one we end up cheering for, and the character I personally found most intriguing. She’s a life coach and spends much of her time writing inspirational blog posts for her clients. For the most part, though, her advice is rather un-inspirational, just a collection of trite clichés, and I wondered whether this was deliberate: a case of “Physician, heal thyself”, perhaps? (It could be, of course, that I’m just not particularly susceptible to self-help platitudes.)
Ellie, meanwhile, who is trying hard to cling to the happy life that she fears may be unravelling around her, is a rather pitiful character, yet she is also the focal point of much of the novel’s considerable tension. She’s being stalked, and feels threatened even when she’s in her own home. The identity of her stalker is carefully withheld, which makes his constant, watchful presence seem all the more menacing. Abbott builds the tension carefully and cleverly, and releases it at just the right time.
This is also a thoroughly modern novel, in that much of the characters’ cruelty and plotting rely on modern inventions such as mobile phones and the internet. Threatening and misleading texts are sent with remarkable regularity, while other characters are trapped and deceived by online stalkers. The age-old human instinct to torment one another has, as Abbot suggests, found a very convenient new outlet.
There are plenty of twists and turns and red herrings here, enough to keep you guessing right to the end. The Back Road actually forces you to confront some of your own prejudices: you assume things that will, in due course, turn out to be completely wrong. There’s one strand of the mystery that, when resolved, will probably leave you reeling, as it did me. It’s interesting that our assumptions as readers are frequently challenged, as a tendency to make assumptions is one of the many problems that beset the characters.
Intricately-plotted and intriguing, The Back Road is well worth a read.