Nestled in the heart of the English countryside lie four grand houses side by side, the residents who live there, self-titled “The Eight” see themselves as the elite of their village and of Britain. Emily and Tom Rutherford, Libby and Johnny Crossan, Tasha and Simon Lonsdale and Jenno and Max Dunster are a seemingly close knit group – regular dinner parties, holidaying together – until a tragedy reveals that they didn’t really know each other at all.
The Deaths opens with this tragedy. A high end coffee delivery person makes the grisly discovery of a multiple -murder. An entire family (and their dogs) has been wiped out. The question that Lawson poses is two-fold: who, but most importantly, why? From the murder scene Lawson jumps back a few months to explore events in the lead up to the event. The narrative is broken down, jumping between the perspectives of each of The Eight (plus a few of their kids and secondary characters) but maintains a third-person voice so once you learn the families, you are never left lost wondering who is speaking.
Each of the families has their own dynamics and set of problems. As you read, you realise that none of them, spouses included, have honest conversations with each other so they’re swept up in a wave of competition, assumptions and envy. In relation to the ‘whodunnit’ aspect of the novel, well, it could have been any of them.
Often, people want to like or identify with at least one character in a novel, it’s what keeps them interested. The Deaths is a funny one as you can never fully identify with any of the characters and nor are you intended to. One of the families fall on hard times when the husband has to take a pension cut as a PR manager at a disgraced bank and the wife fails to take bookings for her catering company. But to them, this is not being able to afford first class flights or having to switch supermarkets, there’s no chance of them losing their house or not being able to eat. Their perspective on the world seems to come solely from each other, and ultimately, it’s this fear of not being able to keep up with the Joneses that results in the ultimate price being paid by one family.
Strong characterisation and more than a dash of dark humour is what keeps you coming back to this book. Set in 2011/2012, it has a healthy dose of social commentary, exposing how the other half live while they’re pleading that they can’t afford higher tax rates. Yes, the characters are stereotypes, parodies even, but it’s oddly satisfying to read their failing pretence.
Although the mystery aspect is not particularly gripping, it is intriguing enough to add to an already enjoyable book and is a neat way of framing the story. The humour lightens the tone an appropriate amount and softens the bite. A good book to read if you ever have the misfortune to find yourself on a delayed train, surrounded by idiots competing to prove who has been most inconvenienced. Or at any time you fancy a satire on the upper middle classes.