It all happened so slowly, yet so extraordinarily quickly, the change to our parents, to our home, to our lives after they arrived. But that first night, when Birdie appeared on our front step with two large suitcases and a cat in a wicker box, we could never have guessed the impact she would have, the other people she would bring into our lives, that it would all end the way it did.
We thought she had just come to stay for the weekend.
Lisa Jewell’s The Family Upstairs is a fitting read for early winter, for its whipping winds and dropping temperatures, early dark and long, fitful nights. This book will leave you glad for that extra-cozy sweater, blinking out your window into the darkness beyond.
More than anything, Jewell has perfected the art of the “slow build”, as what starts out perfectly normal, patently ordinary, grows more wild and weird and unanswerable until you’re flipping page after page with bated breath, listening for that telltale cough that lets you know you’re not alone.
This book is not without its faults, it must be said, and we’ll get to that. But this is a perfect example of a book that’s earned its five stars not for being perfect but for being so inescapably excellent that I am blind to its faults. For while the book may have its faults, the story has none.
I struggled with the voice, and with the cast of characters. I’m pretty much never a fan of books in which I can find no sympathetic characters, and all of my notes for the first few chapters center at least in part on this book’s lack of characters I like. I think there’s something vaguely suffocating in reading a book wherein none of the characters are relatable, or agreeable, or written with the intention of being worthy of our empathy – and that’s definitely this book, at least for me.
But they are damaged characters, all, and as the book unfolds and the story wraps itself together, all of the damage crystallizes into this one clear picture – so suddenly that the breath I’d been holding in my frustration I was now holding for fear that exhaling might shatter this delicate creature of a story that coalesced before my eyes so subtly I didn’t even notice until it was fully formed.
That, my friends, is artwork.
I know that Jewell is a fairly prolific author (I believe The Family Upstairs is her 26th published novel), but I am not familiar with her body of work. I am led to believe that this is one of Jewell’s first forays into thrillers, and after reading this book I find that excessively difficult to believe. The suspense is just so good, the sense of uncertainty nurtured by such a skilled hand. How does she do it?
And beyond that, its intricacies! It’s like watching a 1950s thriller film, like “Dial M for Murder”, or “Rear Window”. Even having mulled it over, having taken notes while reading, having prepared all I can to write this review I can’t for the life of me tell you quite how she did it. Genuinely, I know that Jewell built the seeds of suspense word by word and planted them in my brain, but in peering back through the book I can’t find how she did it. It’s astounding.
In the end, I can say that my personal hangup about stories whose characters I actively hate may have blinded me to some of the initial storytelling and may have let her slip some suspense in under my radar. I may, in criticizing, also be over-praising. But somehow I don’t think so. What I read were the pages of a master of thrills, a creator of chills, and the reason I’m double-checking all my deadbolts this week.
If this is her first dip into thrillers, I can’t wait to read what she writes next.