Carmen a freelance journalist is married to Tom a city lawyer. Happily married they balance their London life with weekends in Norfolk spending time with Tom’s three children from his previous marriage to Laura. A marriage broken up not by Carmen but by the beautiful Zena who drowned swimming in the sea. Content with life and planning a family of their own, Carmen’s world is thrown into a tailspin when a chance meeting with a young man at the train station makes her question Tom’s involvement in Zena’s accident. Can she trust Tom? Can she stay with him? Is she safe?
Undertow is a well-paced psychological thriller which kept me guessing up until the last few chapters. It’s not a perfect plotline, there are some holes and some elements of it are hard to believe but these are minor things and in no way did they stop me wanting to read on.
I think part of my attraction to the book was that I really warmed to the character of Carmen and the complexity of her relationships. With her mother, step mother and half-brother she is the rock, the person they all turn to and she has to be strong for them. I really believe that when someone has to be so strong for others, masking any unhappiness in their own life it can leave them vulnerable. In Carmen this vulnerability manifests itself in her personal relationships, she seems to be naturally attracted to the bad boys. Prior to Tom she had one long-term relationship with Nick, an actor, we don’t know many details about their relationship but what is revealed is not good. The only assumption I could make for why she stayed with him so long was that Carmen’s fear of being alone was possibly greater than her unhappiness and it took Nick cheating on her multiple times for her to find the strength to end it.
Carmen is a very capable character, she owns her own flat and has had a successful career yet she needs to be needed and rather than enjoy her new found independence after breaking away from Nick it is a relatively short period of time before she starts dating Tom. Within months they marry and he moves into her flat. When she is made redundant from her journalism job, Tom reassures her that she doesn’t need to work, that he earns enough money for them both and Carmen is convinced to become a stay at home freelance journalist. Without her realising it Tom is ensuring Carmen is dependent on him and that they live their lives according to his likes.
There is nothing likeable about the character of Tom. He is a manifestation of everything bad about city workers. Confident, smooth, manipulative, aggressive, dismissive of others, Tom likes to be in control. In the early chapters Heathcote reveals Tom’s arrogant quick tempered natured and seeing this side of him makes it easy for us to believe that he may have killed his lover Zena. As the story unfolds we are shown a different more vulnerable side, Tom is fiercely loyal to those he loves, carries tremendous guilt over his affair and its impact on his family and needs Carmen to balance him. And yet, I still couldn’t bring myself to like him, I couldn’t empathise with him and I actual felt he used his vulnerability to manipulate Carmen.
The book opens with Zena’s washed up body being found on the beach in Norfolk. A cold soulless death is portrayed, the vibrant life of a young girl taken by the heartless sea. We then skip forward three years, having died in a tragic accident, Tom’s ex-lover has never given Carmen much cause for thought but when the accidental nature of her death is questioned the ghost of Zena very quickly gets under Carmen’s skin. For Carmen there are too many unknowns, she realises she knows very little of relationship Tom had with Zena. How did they meet, who pursued who, why did he leave Laura for her, was she happy with her new role of “step mum”, had she already set her sights on a new target? In trying to get to the heart of the matter Carmen meets and talks with people from Zena’s past, each one talks of her beauty, she grasp of life and determination to get what she wanted. She is without a doubt portrayed as a black widow using her beauty to enrapture men and manipulate situations for her gain. The reader is given no opportunity to sympathise or feel sorry for Zena. Carmen does not go down the rabbit hole to lay Zena to rest, to get justice for her, to allow her to rest in peace. Carmen must solve the mystery to know who the man she married is.
Reading Undertow I felt like I was joining Carmen on a journey. Once the seed of doubt about Tom’s involvement in Zena’s death has been planted it takes hold of Carmen and she will risk everything, including her relationship with Tom to find the truth. Without giving away too much of the plot there are some fantastic twists and turns, I swung from believing Tom definitely did it, to it being an accident, to it being someone else multiple times. But I did feel some elements of the story were weak in conviction. Carmen’s brother meeting someone who had worked with Zena was a tenuous plot line, Zena’s mother welcoming Carmen in to her home and talking so openly about her daughter with a stranger was less than believable and the Family Liaison Officer who had worked the case discussing details just seemed implausible. But these things can be forgiven and overlooked for plot development purposes.
My main gripe with the storyline is the gap after Carmen leaves Tom. Having given him every opportunity to tell her exactly what happened and feeling like the distance between her and her husband can’t be reconciled Carmen leaves Tom and goes to stay with her mother. In the next chapter we have jumped forward two months, and they’re back together. Whilst a conversation with Kieran, her step-brother, is used to explain the reconciliation it just felt lacking in substance. She may not have thought him guilty but she did not believe his total innocence and left because she could not continue with the doubt and second guessing. How are they reconciled without discussing that more? Carmen becomes stronger and stronger throughout this quest for truth and it is difficult to believe she would have so easily reunited with Tom.
At its heart Undertow is a who dunnit. Whilst Tom is the main suspect Heathcote dangles other possible suspects, Zena’s spurned lovers, Tom’s ex-wife or maybe it simply was a tragic accident. But, the book is also about a journey, sometimes we have to face the darkest moments in life and in people to realise what we want and what we need. This book is not about finding peace for Zena, but is about finding peace for Carmen.