The Day She Died by Catriona McPherson is one of those small books that is deceptive in pace and content. It moves slowly, almost stumbling along as it sets itself up. You will figure out later that this was deliberate as the tale is told through its narrator who despite her outward appearance, is stumbling along through her life as it is.
“..So my point is basically this. The day I met Gus, the day she died, the day I grew a family like I’d planted magic beans, was the day I told Dot at work about my pteronophobia and told her quite a lot really, when you get right down to it, about where it came too. It was the very same day.
Maybe I ended up where I ended up, did what I did, because I was already down the rabbit hole, through the looking glass. Maybe it’s not totally my fault that I tripped and went over the rainbow…”
Jessie Constable doesn’t let people in. She stays to herself, her childhood and family have taught her how to do that. But a chance meeting with Gus King and his two small children changes everything. Bumping into Gus, distraught and disheveled, she helps him get his children home only to find out that his wife Becky is gone. Soon thought Jessie is more than just gone, she’s dead. An apparent suicide. Gus is devastated and Jessie finds that she cannot leave him alone. Soon she is over at his home, cleaning up and taking care of his children as Gus struggles to cope with his wife’s death.
But soon Jessie begins to realize that all is not as it appears on the surface. Understanding that Becky was coping with depression, she finds many signs of a young wife that was anything but depressed. Gus however, is prone to intense mood swings. At first Jessie sees these as a result of dealing with his wife’s death but she finds it hard to trust her judgment.
Plus there is Becky’s good friend Ros who has gone missing. Then there is the bundle of money Jessie finds and the strange man who keeps coming by looking for Becky.
Jessie begins to suspect that there is much more to Gus than what she sees but how can she be sure. Jessie has her own guilt and demons to deal with and she cannot be sure if she can believe what she thinks she sees. Or is she slipping back to a place where reality and fantasy are intertwined. Like she did when she was a child.
The Day She Died is a good old-fashioned mystery and granted there are a few plot twists that have you thinking that no, that can’t be right, McPherson ties it all together very well. The mystery plays out not so much in the real world as in Jessie’s mind as she tries to figure out what is and isn’t real. As she tries to remember what happened as compared to what she was told. But her memories and her reality are hard for her to trust given her childhood trauma. But Jessie is a very likable character. She tries hard to reconcile her pain and struggles with the needs of those around her. When she sees Gus and the children in such grief she finds she cannot help herself in reaching out to them. The ease with which she begins a romantic and sexual relationship with him is unsettling. I mean, come on, his wife isn’t even buried yet, but as it unfolds it makes sense in the end.
Catriona McPherson is an accomplished writer. Keep in mind that this is a Scottish book in a Scottish setting and the language spoken is as such. It lends a reality and time to the novel but some may find it difficult to follow.
The Day She Died is a mystery of death, abandonment, seduction and broken trust.
All told with accomplished prose and pace. A very good read.