Reviewed by Emma Crowley
On a leafy suburban street in Dublin, beautiful, poised Stella Greene lives with her successful husband, Matt. The perfect couple in every way, Stella appears to have it all. Next door, at number 72 however, lives Rea Brady. Gruff, bad-tempered and rarely seen besides the twitching of her net curtains, rumour has it she’s lost it all…including her marbles if you believe the neighbourhood gossip.
But appearances can be deceiving and when Stella and Rea’s worlds collide they realise they have much in common. Both are trapped in a prison of their own making.
Has help been next door without them realising it?
When a book arrives on your doorstep accompanied by a pack of tissues you know you are in for one hell of a roller coaster of a read. The Woman at 72 Derry Lane is Carmel Harrington's fifth book and without doubt it's her best yet, it's an absolute stunning read. So much power and raw emotion is packed in between the pages of this story that once you pick it up it will not leave your hand until you have read the very last word. The book opens with a masterfully written most sinister prologue, filled with tension that instantly has the reader sitting up and taking notice.
Things are not good for Stella Greene. On the outside it may seem that her marriage and life with Matt is all a bed of roses and they live the ideal life that many couples would aspire to. That's the façade that is presented anyway but behind closed doors Stella's life is one of constant fear and anxiety. Matt is dangerous, controlling, domineering and to me a cold monster that showed no feelings or emotions. He gets off on power and put downs and his possessive nature is very apparent.'This was a game to him, a cruel game of cat and mouse where the rules changed daily. 'Stella leads a life of terror, one in which she is always on edge never knowing what will happen next. She is all alone and has no family to escape to or even a friend to confined in. Stella believes they love each other that Matt needs her.' So she stayed in a Jekyll and Hyde marriage that was all kinds of wrong. Full of contradictions, as love and tenderness were swamped for humiliation and pain in a fleeting moment '.
Rea Brady is Stella's next door neighbour who hasn't been outside her home in two years. She is a recluse who can't make it out her own back door let alone go out to the shops for a message like any normal person. She inhabits a world of her own in 72 Derry Lane as acrophobia is dominating and pressing into every aspect of her life. She has strict routines and schedules she must adhere to that give structure to her day locked away in her own little prison of sorts. Interaction with the outside world is best described as fleeting. As brief as possible contact with the pizza delivery guy is about all she can manage with people she does not know. Outsiders believe Rea is strange, abrupt and that she has lost it mentally. One wonders what has caused this and led to this point? So it's just Rea with Siri for company. Rea can hear the arguments between Stella and Matt that spiral into something more through the walls and given her condition she battles with the question what can she do to help?
An early comparison is clear to make between the two main female characters in that both are in their own form of prison, a dark place in which no there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel. They would have people believe that everything is perfect, there are no struggles, they don't battle emotionally and physically on a daily basis. Don't most people do that in some form or other at some point in their lives? Keep things all bottled up, hidden and tucked away from prying eyes. They come across all happy and present a front but at home things are not as they seem,cracks show, barriers come down and eventually the flood gates will have to open and the truth flow out. This will have to happen for Stella and Rea but how can it be achieved?
Alongside the main strands of the story revolving around Stella and Rea is that of a third person but to say anything about it would give far too much away. I'll admit I initially thought this just seemed to be thrown in there and was out of place compared to what I was reading regarding Stella and Rea. It's only as this element evolved and a true picture began to emerge that I realised it was pure genius from the author. I had the vaguest of notions as to what the connection could be but just as I was reaching for the truth it slipped away from my grasp. Just like when you are trying to recollect some point from a dream for example. This aspect of the story was so beautifully written, so visual that it had you sitting on the edge of your seat, heart in mouth witnessing what was unfolding. There was one point where I let out a gasp as a connection was made. It was just so bitter sweet and unjust but very very cleverly written. I don't know how Carmel would have been able to write these scenes without shedding plenty a tear.
As Stella and Rea are trapped in what could be deemed a prison of their own making they slowly start to realise that help could be much closer than they think. They become aware of each other's issues and start to aid each other in small but significant ways. Each can see the other is hurting and that they have something that can help the other. Stella is lost in a world of fear, pain and sadness. She is broken and alone. Matt has isolated her from everyone she knows making her doubt her own voice and her own sanity. Bringing around a package for Rea proves the turning point for both woman and Rea urges Stella to 'get back the Stella you were before he came into your life. As for being trapped, the only person who can hold you back, is you'.
I felt the two women acted as an anchor for each other and that they had a common goal to work towards freeing themselves from their respective prisons. Stella from Matt and Rea from the four walls of her home. You could say why didn't Stella just walk out the door and never come back? Why didn't Rea venture out to her garden or out to the shops? But life isn't that easy and the author through her incredibly writing and her way with words made me realise that even more than ever before. Both women are haunted by their pasts which deeply affects how they are in the present. They can't easily break free from the chains that shackle them even they though they long to do so with every fibre of their being. 'It's just, sometimes things can creep up on you and before you know it, you're in so deep, you just can't find a way to get out'. Never was a truer word said. You pretend nothing is wrong and attempt to put on a positive front and before you know it you are ensnared in something that is very difficult to release yourself from unless you have the strength and courage to do so. In this case for both Stella and Rea they need each other to do this and in finding each other and doing little things bit by bit it's then their individual bravery, strength, resilience and love can begin to shine through and maybe some ray of hope will see them overcome adversity.
I really couldn't get enough of this remarkable book. I was flying through the pages eager to see how Stella and Rea's story unfolded. Yet every so often I had to stop and absorb the exceptional writing as the words on the page were just so powerful and they resonated so deeply with me. The story is not all doom and gloom as neighbour Linda, her son Louis and hairdresser Charlie offered light relief with their wit and humour. There was a wonderful sense of light and shade between what Stella and Rea were experiencing and the perspectives of Linda and co. They provided plenty of laugh out loud moments and brought a smile to my face and proved in the darkest of times that happiness can be achieved and laughter experienced to give one hope and confidence. Throughout the book the way Carmel was writing certain things made me think oh this is happening or has happened in the past but it gave me a false sense of security and as the pace was ramped up there were numerous twists and turns that left me gasping out loud. The randomness of fate and the truly raw heartbreaking scenes were incredibly written and in way seemed so unjust.
The Woman at 72 Derry Lane is a phenomenal book where every word, setting and character were so perfectly placed and combined together to make a read that no one would forget in a hurry. My preconceived perspectives/opinions on a lot of the issues raised in this book definitely changed the more I read. Life isn't easy, the solutions to escaping and finding happiness aren't easy either. One has to battle to emerge stronger and victorious and friendship, love and unity will help with this. 'The fear has taken over my life and I'm drowning in it, but I can't swim my way out of it'. Sometimes we need another person to throw us that life ring, to extend a hand and support us in that journey to swim back to the life we deserve. I'll admit I didn't cry when reading this book and I think it's simple because I was reading so fast so gripped was I that I wasn't taking everything in small chunks rather inhaling it in one go. It's only when I went to bed that night after finishing the book as I lay in the dark thinking about things that then it hit me full force and I really felt the impact of this book. Combined with my own recent personal experiences and then thinking about Stella and Rea I became an absolute mess and yes those tissues were most definitely needed.
By far this is the best book Carmel Harrington has written and that is not to take away from her previous books but she has taken her writing to a whole other level and excelled herself. All the praise this book has earned and the high rankings in the best-seller list is entirely justified. Carmel this was a masterpiece and I really don't know how you will top it in the future. No pressure or anything!
Many thanks to Harper Collins Ireland for my copy of The Woman at 72 Derry Lane to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.