52 books in 1 year. Week 3, Book 3: ‘Disclaimer’ by Renee Knight

According to a report in The Bookseller this week, the fiction trend for 2016 will continue to be ‘grip lit’. Thanks to Gone Girl, Girl on the Train (see last week’s review), Girl in the Red Coat, and no doubt many other books with ‘Girl’ in the title, ‘grip lit’ is here to stay. Apparently the term was coined by bestselling novelist Marian Keyes to describe novels that are so gripping you can’t put them down. Out of all these psychological thrillers, often written by female authors and with a traumatised female character at the heart of the suspense, Gone Girl was the ‘mother of them all’ – so I guess I will have to read it eventually.

Last week, however, I experienced ‘grip lit’ with Disclaimer, by Renee Knight. The central character of Disclaimer is also a woman, Catherine Ravenscroft, who has a secret that she has kept private from her husband, Robert, and (possibly) from her son, Nicholas. The main theme of the book is that her past comes back to haunt her. I can’t actually tell you much more about it without giving the plot away – but it is very creepy, with a couple of good twists – although the twists are perhaps not as outstanding as some (if not all) of the cover quotes seem to suggest. This is a first novel from Renee Knight (she worked as a documentary maker for the BBC) and it has already been optioned for a movie by Fox Searchlight.

It took me a while to get into the book and understand what was going on – in fact I wasn’t ‘hooked’ until page 57 – and then it took a little longer to be totally ‘gripped’. That ‘grip lit’ sensation then lasted throughout the entire middle third of the book, but I personally found the last third to be a bit of a disappointment. I wondered several times that if Catherine had simply just told some people about certain things, then she wouldn’t have lived through the hell she did … but I guess part of the story is also whether she can maintain her strength to overcome it all, by just being herself … or whether she can’t (I’m not telling you).

There are some wonderful character descriptions in the book. Someone’s ‘nose hairs are not trimmed’ and ‘shiver like spiders’ legs when he blows on his tea’. But for me, the best character is Catherine’s ‘tormentor’ (I can’t tell you much more) – an evil, vindictive old widower called Stephen Brigstocke. The most effective (and almost most frightening) description of the old widower concerns his toenails. He writes himself that ‘they are not a pretty sight. I have been rather lax with my hygiene lately and my toenails have grown long. They are curling at the ends, confused about which direction they should be going in. Hard, like bone.’ I love this description – it is just perfect. Then a little later he adds, ‘I am aware of the scratch of my nails on the linoleum as I walk.’ There is something about the toenail descriptions that remind me of passages in Iain Banks’ Wasp Factory, where I recall one character putting his own toenail clippings in a stew that he was cooking for others, maybe even his father. The tormentor character in Disclaimer is grotesque, thanks mainly to his toenails. Later in the book he states that ‘my heart has become as hard as my toenails.’ He’s evil. Pure evil. Or is he? Read it and find out. You will be gripped.

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