Monday, December 16, 2019

The Playground

The Playground by Jane Shemilt
HarperCollins: 12/30/19
advanced reading copy; 384 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062939425

The Playground by Jane Shemilt is a highly recommended domestic drama.

Set in London, the lives of three very different couples and their children intertwine and become toxic in The Playground. Eve has a healthy trust fund and is married to Eric, a landscaper. They have three children, Poppy, 11, Sorrel, 6, and Ash, 3. Melissa is a successful interior designer married to Paul, an abusive, cruel banker. They have one child, Isabelle (Izzy), 13.  Grace is an immigrant from Zimbabwe who is married to Martin, a one-time successful English writer. They have two children, Blake, 11, and Charley, 9. The family lives on the 13th floor in a high-rise housing project and Grace is the sole provider for them.

The families meet when Eve becomes certified to teach children with dyslexia. She did this to help Poppy, but decides to offer classes to help other children while helping her daughter. Two other families pay for the tutoring: Grace and Martin for Blake, and Melissa and Paul for Izzy. On the first day of classes, the die is cast and all the children are together. Blake's sister Charley is allowed to stay and Eve's two youngest are also home. The families become involved with each other, resulting in an illicit relationship. And no one is really watching the children and their secret games.

The novel opens with foreshadowing that something terrible is going to happen and clearly the combination of these three very different families is toxic. Truly, this is a novel populated by very unlikable, self-involved and delusional characters, with the exception of Grace who is the only one who is working hard and therefore not around early enough to see warning signs. Her husband Martin is a slouch, allowing her to shoulder the load. Eve annoyed me to no end, with her mantra that children need freedom to run free, unstructured and unwatched. I understand allowing unstructured play time, but that doesn't mean unobserved. Melissa allows her husband to abuse her and doesn't seem to realize her daughter is watching this behavior. But, make no mistake, someone is watching and the children know more of what is going on and have secrets of their own.

Obviously, the writing is very good, especially when it elicits such strong emotions. Shemilt does a satisfying job developing her characters and their points-of-view in the multiple narratives. We hear from Eve, Melissa, Grace, and Izzy. There are a few twists that might distract your attention, but Shemilt provides enough ominous indications that most readers are going to know what is going on long before the denouement.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins

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