The road to hell is paved with good intentions, as the saying goes. And for Jack Redman, the main protagonist in this book, that is certainly the case. As in the first book in this series, we are confronted by messy lives, terrible binds, bad decisions and their repercussions. Only this time Jan Ruth has certainly upped the ante and her characters have even more at stake. However, the pitfalls and perils are all mixed up with love-the sexual, parental, familial and platonic kinds. Dark Water is the sequel to Wild Water. It takes up the story of Cheshire estate agent, Jack Redman, his ex-wife Patsy and Jack’s new partner, Anna. What I especially like about these main characters is that they’re over forty – Jack is approaching fifty – but they’re in no way ‘past-it’. And their age and experience in no way grants them wisdom. These are flawed, disillusioned people with lots of baggage, but for all of them there is hope.
But, right from the start of Dark Water, it’s clear that things are not going to flow on smoothly to happy-ever-after for Jack or any of the people close to him. Jack is torn between wanting to be with Anna, and wanting to do right by his children. His decision, under pressure from his ex-wife, to move her and their younger daughter, Lottie, along with her toddler son, James, to be nearer to Lottie’s new school in Wales and hence very near to Anna’s home puts an intolerable strain on Jack and Anna’s relationship. The question of James’s parentage – he could be Jack’s son after all – the reappearance of Chelsey’s father, Simon Banks – now a dangerously disturbed individual who also bears a grudge towards Anna and who wants to reveal his identity to an unsuspecting Chelsey at any cost – the proximity of Patsy to Anna, and the commute to and from his two offices in Cheshire and Wales all lead to Jack’s life being increasingly complicated and stressful. And, in the end, complicated and stressful becomes dangerous and life-threatening.
The setting is almost another character in its own right, especially when the action takes place in Wales. It certainly adds to the atmosphere. But the description isn’t overdone. There’s just enough to let the reader form their own picture of the dramatic landscape but it doesn’t get in the way. Having said that though, the novel is very visual and the characters and settings are vivid enough that it’s not hard to visualise them as part of a television drama. Dark Water has a Sally Wainwright – Last Tango in Halifax, Scott & Bailey vibe to it. Jack’s poky flat that he shares with his son, the farmhouse, Patsy’s cottage, the quarry, the mountains and the art gallery where Anna exhibits her work – all were, in my head at least, easily translated into sets.
The tele-visual appeal is also reinforced by the narrative’s questions and twists along the way which go from intriguing to scary. The author is skilled in pacing their resolutions and reveals, and in peppering the narrative with just enough relatively minor details of the character’s daily lives to make the whole seem credible and true to life. And the climax and its denouement are utterly gripping. There’s also a feeling there’s more to come – something the epilogue sets up nicely. All very fitting for dramatisation.
The themes of love, disappointment, loss and hope run through this book. The author lets us see them developing through the eyes of both Jack and Anna. She lets us inside their heads and lets us feel their emotions. In this way they become real, flawed and familiar to the reader.
Jan Ruth makes the reader care about her characters’ fates. She portrays all the characters – heroes and villains – as credible individuals, so we can even feel sorry for and understand the less likeable ones. And how utterly refreshing to have some older lead characters. Hurrah for this fine example of those of us who’ve matured beyond the ‘chick’ stage and are now older, wiser birds.
This is excellent contemporary fiction. If I had to shelve it in my virtual book shop, I’d put it in the contemporary women’s fiction section. It’s not chick-lit; it’s not Mills and Boon romance. It’s thinking, mature woman-lit and, like its intended readership, it’s got depth, grit, realism and warmth.
5 out of 5 stars.