Book Review: “The Little House” by Philippa Gregory

An accomplished and insightful author

A contemporary psychological suspense thriller

Philippa Gregory is a British author who is best known for writing historical fiction but she has published novels in other genres too. This novel is – by far – one of the finest contemporary psychological thrillers that I’ve read in a long time. If the novels of Ruth Rendell and Lisa Gardner appeal to you, you’ll find this novel to be as compelling, riveting and sinister as theirs. What makes this story so remarkable is the fact that all the events seem to occur in such an ordinary, day-to-day context – yet there is a chilling undertone of devious manipulation and stubborn dominance in the characters – all whilst giving the outward impression of trying to be very helpful, kind and considerate.

The plot centers around Ruth Cleary – the protagonist; her spouse, Patrick; her mother-in-law, Elizabeth; her father-in-law, Frederick and finally – the infant Thomas – Ruth & Patrick’s son. The story is set in the beautiful and comfortable environs of the English countryside. This peaceful setting of rural England ought to instill a sense of calm and happiness to the reader but it is, in reality, very evocative of the hidden deception nestling behind these tranquil surroundings. The setting is a very important part of the plot because it quietly brings in with it a sense of foreboding, isolation, deceit and dread.

Ruth is an orphan and a successful journalist but she is portrayed as being insecure and desperately seeking approval, acceptance, love and affection from her family. One can sympathize with the nightmare and predicament that her tragic life is soon thrown into. She is portrayed as being weak-willed and easily swayed by the opinion of those close to her. Patrick works in the field of the media too – he is one of those spineless, yet manipulative characters who is completely dominated by his parents, especially by his mother. He gives the impression of supporting his wife but on the contrary, he goes, all out of his way, to fulfill all his parents’ various needs and demands.  He is openly derisive and critical of Ruth. Ruth is made out to be an extremely incompetent, lazy and unreliable drug addict – yet none of her family members takes the time to realize that her increasingly erratic behavior is the result of her undergoing serious post-natal depression. Elizabeth is a cruel, nasty, devious and manipulative woman and she is – more often than not – the cause of Ruth’s intense misery, depression and loneliness. Elizabeth’s stubborn protestations of help and generally bossy behavior slowly drive Ruth to the very edge of her sanity. Frederick seems to be supporting his daughter-in-law initially but wastes no time in displaying the mean and cunning streak in his personality. The infant Thomas is seen as being constantly jostled from Ruth’s care to that of the ‘loving ministrations’ of his grand-parents. Inevitably, Ruth finds herself driven to the very edge of madness, as she feels herself utterly betrayed by her own family.

The whip-lash of the double twist of the ending of the novel leaves the reader feeling totally nonplussed, shocked and scandalized to the core. There are no seemingly spine-tingling events in the novel yet it is highly evocative of horror in one’s mundane existence. It is very expressive of the evil behind certain outwardly, so-called good-intentioned people who are hypocrites, in all actuality. This novel will leave you feeling tense and totally unsettled. None of the characters, except Ruth maybe, really endear to the reader yet you would do very well to have it as a prized and treasured novel in your book library. It is a perfect example of the complexities and deviancy of human character and behaviour.