Alice Lang was wearing her favourite scarlet dress when she disappeared twenty-five years ago, and her memory still casts a long shadow.
‘The past was like water. Once the tide turned, you couldn’t hold it back.’
In the long, hot summer of 1995, twenty-two-year-old Alice Lang rents a caravan on a holiday park on the outskirts of the lively holiday resort of Severn Sands. She befriends Marnie, a shy, damaged little girl whose father is the park’s caretaker and whose mother died a few months earlier. Will, whose mother runs the bar, falls in love with Alice, and is unbearably jealous of anyone else she sees. Tensions rise until one evening Alice disappears from her caravan. She’s never seen again, and only her scarlet dress is found washed up on the shore.
A quarter of a century later, the town is run down and nobody comes there anymore. Mr and Mrs deVillars, former owners of the holiday park, have passed the failing business onto their son Guy, who promptly sells the land for development. Builders clearing the land to create an expanse of executive homes uncover human bones. It has to be Alice.
Will and Marnie’s lives were entirely shaped by what happened that summer, and now Alice has been found, they must struggle to pin down their memories, to escape the secrets of the past, the lies they told and the unbearable guilt they’re both carrying.
They need to find out what happened to Alice. Who killed her? And why?
I received a copy of this book from Boldwood Books via NetGalley in return for an honest review.
This story is wonderfully complex. Character-driven, it draws the reader into a world of decay, deceit and death. The discovery of human bones years after a young woman disappeared reopens old hurts in a town that is a shadow of its former self. Marnie, a child at the time of the disappearance, still bears the emotional scars. Will, obsessed with the missing girl Alice, is drawn back to the dying town of his birth, feeling there is unfinished business.
The story gives up its secrets as it unfolds and undulates between the present day and 1995. There are unexpected twists, emotional moments and relentless tension that builds to the story’s end. The setting is well created and complements the plot perfectly. This is a compelling story with many emotionally damaged characters, of which Marnie is my favourite.
This is an immersive story about ordinary people and extraordinary tragedy. It reads, like a Nordic noir set in the English seaside, an engaging balance of introspection and action it’s a page-turner.
Louise Douglas is the bestselling and brilliantly reviewed author of novels including The House By The Sea and Missing You – a RNA award winner. The Secrets Between Us was a Richard and Judy Book Club pick. She lives in the West Country.
Extract from The Scarlet Dress – Louise Douglas
A lively wind danced across the estuary flatlands, shimmying the feathered heads of the reeds that lined the rhynes. Marnie Morahan headed back down the track with the dogs: her own beloved Tessy and the foster dog, a monstrous-looking animal that Jenna at the rescue centre had named Mister. He had short legs and a chest so barrelled that he waddled rather than walked. His head and neck were covered in scars and old wounds from his days as a bait dog, one ear almost completely gone, the other with chunks missing like a leaf got at by snails. His grizzled snout was encased inside a Silence of the Lambs-style muzzle designed to protect him from himself. If another dog came too close, Mister might try to kill it and he was already on his final warning. His next aggressive bite would be his last.
Marnie loved all animals, even difficult-to-love ones like Mister; especially ones like him. It was people she struggled with. It was a two-way street. Marnie didn’t trust people and most people thought she was weird with her old black clothes and boots, her piercings and tattoos, her hair shaved close to her skull, her sullen expression and downcast eyes; her reluctance to be involved with anyone except for her immediate family, Jenna and her dog-training clients. Her muteness. Marnie knew people called her a misfit, and worse. It didn’t hurt because she was used to it; she’d been the odd one out all her life. Sometimes she worried that her oddness would become an embarrassment to her daughter, Lucy, or worse, that bullies might target Lucy because of her, but fortunately Lucy was a sunny, friendly girl, popular at school. She accepted Marnie as she was and expected others to accept her too. Lucy understood that Marnie could no more change than the sun could rise in the west: she didn’t need to be close to people and people didn’t need to be close to her.
The track was stony. Gritty puddles had formed in the potholes. The grass that grew in shabby green strips was submerged in the wet. The hedgerows on either side had lost their leaves months earlier and were black and twiggy, and the branches of the wind-worn trees above were jagged, mistletoe growing like ragged hair in the pits of their joints. Deep ruts made by ploughs in undulating stripes across the fields were full of water that reflected the light.
Clouds raced across a high, wintry sky that morning; a flock of lapwings banked steeply into the air, flashing white then black. Tessy stopped to sniff at a pile of dung and Mister looked up at Marnie with bloodshot, prize-fighter eyes, confused because he did not understand the joys of sniffing.
Marnie put her hand in the pocket of her ancient coat and pulled out a handful of dried pilchards. She offered one to Mister through the muzzle, but the dog backed away, believing it to be a trick, expecting to be punished. Marnie dropped the treat on the ground. Mister stared at it, but made no move to eat it.