Skip to main content

Watching You


Watching You

Curiosity, passion, madness, revenge: WATCHING YOU, Lisa Jewell’s latest psychological thriller, is all about what drives us to observe --- or you might say stalk --- another person. Privacy issues, however, are not the point here (no Big Brother disguised as Facebook); it’s an intimate story, mostly concerned with the mundane --- and mutual --- prowling and lurking and gossiping that always goes on in smallish neighborhoods. Yet the watchers aren’t necessarily innocent. The reader is immediately made aware that obsessions, once begun, can be dangerous.

On the very first page is an excerpt from a schoolgirl diary, a confession that she’s in love with her teacher. Next comes a police inspector’s appraisal of a crime scene, 18 years later. But we don’t yet know who is dead, much less who did it, nor how the girl was involved. What follows is a satisfyingly tense scenario in which the author (a) backtracks to the months just before the murder, expertly juggling three narrators, and (b) keeps us up to date on the murder investigation by dipping periodically into police interviews with suspects and witnesses. 

Joey Mullen, 26, has a foot in each of two (fictional) communities in the English city of Bristol. She grew up in the unclassy lower part of town but now lives --- thanks to her heart-surgeon brother --- in one of the posh, brightly painted Victorian terrace houses that overlook it. She and her husband are crashing there after returning home from their barefoot beach wedding (and other wild-child escapades) in Ibiza. The arrangement is temporary, just until they get themselves “sorted”; so far, though, neither has a decent job. Joey, knocked sideways by the sudden death of her mother, can’t quite figure out how to become a grown-up. Instead of getting on with life, she has graveside chats with Mum and, more important for the plot, develops a crush on an older man, one Tom Fitzwilliam. A crush that is reciprocated.

"It’s wonderful when a novel’s conclusion is not overly neat, when it spills over the boundaries of plot --- messily, like life itself --- into new insights and possibilities. WATCHING YOU is that best of reads: a mystery that goes beyond the same old cat-and-mouse game."

Fiftyish Tom, headmaster of the local state school, lives two doors down from Joey in a canary yellow house. He has had a brilliant career at educational establishments all over the country and is worshiped by his students and mousy, much younger wife. His son, Freddie, our second narrator, is a less ardent fan. This 14-year-old prodigy (he speaks seven languages) is the most annoying, sarcastic, vulnerable and poignant character of all. We watch him struggle to decode “the strange darkness at the heart of his family”: the fights, the marks of physical abuse, the “sour smell of secrets and lies.” Freddie has no friends; he spends his time spying on the denizens of the lower part of town. And he sees things he’s not meant to.

Among Freddie’s observational targets is a slightly older teenager named Jenna Tripp and her best friend, Bess, both students at Tom’s school. Jenna is the third narrator of WATCHING YOU. She lives with her divorced mother, who suffers from the paranoid delusion that there is a vast conspiracy to “get” her. Jenna bears Mum’s private fixations and public scenes with a mixture of adolescent despair and gallant maturity. Only a kid herself, she must mother her own mother.

It’s difficult to summarize the plot without giving too much away. As the suspense builds, our attention is drawn to a past incident involving the obsessive schoolgirl, and linking all three of the narrators. Could that be the key to the killer’s identity? We become watchers as well as readers, taking a deep dive into the daily life of the neighborhood and following a few false leads. Jewell, like any mystery writer worth her salt, strews the road to the solution with numerous red herrings.

Actually, I think she overdoes the misdirection a bit. The apparent villain is too obviously malign, and about halfway through the book I realized that somebody else --- I didn’t know who --- was probably the baddie. But that’s a minor flaw in a mystery whose narrative voices are quirky, honest and engaging.

Of all the characters, Freddie is the strongest and most eloquent. He goes from being a slightly creepy, highly defended observer of other people to an actor making choices about his own life. I cheered when he cut off his long, nerdy hair (“He looked fierce and fresh and feral”) and gained the confidence to ask a girl out for the first time. I wept when he seemed unable to make sense of the confusing signals in his family: “His giant brain was not helping him now. His ridiculous IQ was not showing up on a white steed to navigate him through this maze of weirdness.” It’s his father in particular who confuses him. Is he “an angry bear: dark and lethal, capable of anything,” or a mild, compassionate presence, more like a teddy?

One of Jewell’s trademarks is an ongoing commitment to the people she’s created, always giving them dimension and depth. In a way, this is a coming-of-age tale, for all three youthful narrators evolve as the story progresses, and I wanted to know what happened to each of them after the crime was solved (fortunately, the author obliges). Then, just when you think it’s safe to close the book, Jewell delivers her final twist: a jolting epilogue in which an episode from the past is revealed in a different light.

It’s wonderful when a novel’s conclusion is not overly neat, when it spills over the boundaries of plot --- messily, like life itself --- into new insights and possibilities. WATCHING YOU is that best of reads: a mystery that goes beyond the same old cat-and-mouse game.

Reviewed by Katherine B. Weissman on January 4, 2019

Watching You
by Lisa Jewell