When we meet Emily Proudman she is pretty much screwed. She’s lost her temp job, stuffed up her latest audition, pissed off her parents, and is struggling to scrounge together enough money for a few groceries. But then her handsome, super-rich former boss, Scott, saves her from being hit by a bus. He offers her a job. Not just any job, a dream job. A live-in housekeeper – working for his wife and looking after their daughter in a beautiful estate on the French coast. Ooh la la!
But as we all know, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Emily arrives at ‘Querencia’ and is immediately bewitched when she sees the “two huge whitewashed castles standing sentinel over a fairy kingdom”. Scott’s wife, Nina, informs Emily that their 6-year-old daughter, Aurelia, is unwell. Her skin can’t be exposed to the sunlight. She doesn’t speak. And she’s prone to sudden outbursts of aggression. However, Emily soon becomes fond of her charge, and develops a firm friendship with Nina.
Emily knows she isn’t allowed in the main house, but one day decides to have a little peek. What she discovers is strange and baffling. Things get even more disturbing when a group of hikers stumble onto the property and Nina suddenly becomes hysterical. It’s clear this family is hiding something, but Emily doesn’t realise just how disturbing that something is until she’s so firmly entrenched there’s no possible way she can escape.
‘Querenica’ is the perfect setting for a psychological thriller. No phone reception. No internet. An idyllic, secluded property bordered by a forest – a smokescreen for something sinister. It’s a place where anything could happen, and no one would ever find out about it. The setting also acts as a perfect conflict for Emily – she’s finally found a place where she feels happy, something she hasn’t experienced in a long time. Does she really want to mess it all up?
The narrative alternates between three point-of-view characters, the action unfolding in the present day with flashbacks to the past. This works well and there’s some tragic reveals as we learn more about Scott and Nina’s relationship. Anna Downes has written well-rounded, complex characters, evoking sympathy in the reader for them when they do things they shouldn’t do. Emily is wide-eyed and innocent with a propensity to over share – qualities that means she easily succumbs to the charms and manipulations of Scott and Nina. Her journey from a clumsy Bambi into an empowered Belle makes for a very interesting read.
While the story is a little slow to start with, it’s necessary in order for the reader to fully appreciate the explosive finale, and the horrifying moment Emily realises the safe place she’s come to love couldn’t be more unsafe.
I recommend listening to The Safe Place on Audible. It’s wonderful listening to Anna Downes, an experienced actor, read her own story.
The Safe Place by Anna Downes is published by Affirm Press.
Hundreds of special little moments – smiles and frowns and exclamations – are being thrown into the air like bridal bouquets, and I am the only one catching them.