Skip to main content

We Know You Know

Review

We Know You Know

Following 2018’s phenomenal HE SAID/SHE SAID, Erin Kelly introduces a trio of characters engaged in nefarious schemes. Secrets bind them like a tripod head; no one leg can stand alone. Yet each despises the others. A “journey from grudging tolerance to contempt only goes one way. But it’s a three-way pact of course, a sick little eternal triangle. You pull one string, it all goes to [crap]. We’d all three of us go to prison.”

Three decades ago as a teen, the distinguished History of Art lecturer, Doctor Marianne Thackeray née Smy, departed rural England after Victorian Nazareth asylum closed. “‘I used to have nightmares about the place.’ That much is true: only the tense is a lie.” The “longer than Buckingham Palace” hospital is now a horrendously expensive luxury resort, the ritzy Park Royal Manor.

Jesse Brame was Marianne’s beau as a teen. Both had little chance of achieving much in the impoverished village. “Jesse never had that kind of initiative” and stagnated. At age 48, he’s now a part-time yoga instructor and resurfaces when Marianne returns. “He could undo 30 years in as many seconds.”

"It is a tale of maternal nurturing and neglect, blackmail, distrust and titillating suspense."

Octogenarian Helen Greenlaw is a success-driven Member of Parliament who “[l]ooks like a shark in lipstick.” Six decades ago, her mother committed her to an asylum for wanting to climb the workforce ladder instead of becoming a housewife, “given that housewives’ livelihoods are not dependent upon intellect.” Helen’s “hard heart was our only hope.” But can she achieve redemption in nurturing another person’s child?

“The Victorians used to call their mental hospitals stone mothers. Really, they were obsolete within years of opening,” but took a century to scuttle them. “If one wasn’t mad upon admission to Nazareth, one certainly would be within days.”

This satisfying read, which bears the curious phrase as its title, has an easily overlooked subplot. Two stone mothers have stone hearts when it comes to their offspring. One defends her disturbed daughter at the risk of her own life. Another who is not ill inherited from her mum a stone heart, and passes on to the next generation disinterest and abandonment.

It is a tale of maternal nurturing and neglect, blackmail, distrust and titillating suspense. With her début, THE POISON TREE, Erin Kelly ascended the throne as the Monarch of Dark Fiction, the Queen of Psych Suspense.

Kelly apparently named her fictional asylum Nazareth for good reason. According to Charles Finch’s THE VANISHING MAN: Within a century, the asylum “Our Lady of Bethlehem…had been shortened to Bethlem. By 1440 it was called, thanks to the local accents, Bedlam.” Bedlam was the nickname of London’s infamous insane asylum, and the word now means a state of uproar or confusion.

In Kelly’s Nazareth --- and American hospitals --- patients during the 1950s and ’60s were treated with electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) by physicians who smoked in hospitals and offered cigarettes to patients. Firsthand, I knew a patient who had ECTs and could not recall the names of her five children.

Reviewed by L. Dean Murphy on September 27, 2019

We Know You Know
by Erin Kelly