‘We All Begin As Strangers’ is the brilliant debut by Harriet Cummings, which is inspired by true events – a English village is pushed to the brink, and the secrets it’s residents are desperate to protect. It sounds like an Agatha Christie opening doesn’t it, or something with a doddering, nosy old battleax detective – more interested in the new arrival to the village than who slipped the arsenic into a cup of tea at the village cricket match…but Cummings delivers something fresh to the table with her debut novel, writing like a seasoned professional.
The novel is about a ‘Fox’ more a metaphorical device than an actual fox. It’s someone who could possibly have introduced themselves to you at a dinner party, or bumped into you on the street, could be the person at the local butchers or the priest who seems to be into everyone’s business. People in this quaint village return home and find that items have been moved, draws rummaged through; but nothings missing nothing has been stolen, there are no items that have been reported missing, the only thing that’s left is a sense of his presence within each of their houses. At first it’s a little bit of a joke, people talk about it as if it’s something funny, even bragging about it. But soon the laughter stops and the fingers start pointing, the curtains twitch and the tongues are wagging with accusations.
Tensions are strained and Cummings does a brilliant job in heightening these tensions causing the reader to be pulled into the midst of this quaint little village and become a curtain twitcher themselves; when a young woman from the village disappears – is the ‘Fox’ behind her disappearance?
Deloris is from Croydon and is used to stories of robberies and break-ins. Not so long ago a traffic warden was beaten with a brick and all it prompted from her dad was a brief pause before he turned to the sports page. Still, there is something unnerving about living in this village enclosed by woods either side. The silver birch trees loom just beyond their patio in a line of ghostly white shapes. And behind that, endless thick trees are dark with spindly branches. Her eyes can’t pick out anything more. Harvey tells her the countryside is what middle-class folk aspire to, the Buckinghamshire village prized for its protected woods, but to her there is something comforting about London’s concrete, its car parks and blaring radios, shopkeepers who stand out on the street and whistle as you walk past. And crowds where you can be anyone. Here she is utterly alone, with just the quiet of her mind.
Cummings delivers when it comes to her characters, the novel excels in having characters that you come to love, enjoy being around and finding out in depth details about their individual lives and where they come from and what they are doing in this quite little town. It’s to her credit that each character is well fleshed out and there are no characters that are not expanded upon as the story is told from several viewpoints throughout – it could have been easy for a few characters to just sail on the shoulders of others but all earn their place within the story.
Over the next few days Deloris keeps going to the phone. It shouldn’t be so hard to get hold of some. Her friend Josie used to be on it and said it worked a charm. One pill every morning, as long as you remember after breakfast. Every time Deloris dials the doctor’s number, however, she puts the phone back in its cradle as it starts to ring. The practice is just in the next village and the staff are bound to know Harvey or at least his parents who’ve lived in the area for thirty years. It’s supposed to be confidential, but nothing seems that way in these villages. Not so long ago Deloris heard Sandra talking about someone who’d had an abortion and turned up to a prayer meeting and confessed everything over a cup of orange squash; she had moved back with her parents in Winchester shortly after. And it wasn’t like the men were much better. You’d hear them in the pub telling each other about how Rick makes snuff films in his caravan park, or that Ralph Scott has a deformity so awful he can’t look in the mirror.
There were times I found the story quite slow; and I feel that the recurring issue for this was due to Cummings attention to detail and in telling us everything about the scenes caused the story to become delayed causing me at times to skim over large sections to get to the action. This could be due to Cummings desire to delve deeper into the psychology of her characters, but for me I found it jarring and for me is the only thing that shows that ‘We All Begin As Strangers’ is from a debutant novelist.
Overall it was a well-crafted, crime, who-done-it novel that I enjoyed in the most part. There were parts of the novel that I found to be brilliant, all her work around fleshing out her characters and delving into their individual psych could be the work of a well-established crime novelist and showcases her undeniable talent. If this is a small sign of things to come and if Harriet Cummings in my opinion can tame her descriptive ramblings just a wee bit; as the famous phone brand once said ‘The futures bright, the futures orange!’
Harriet Cummings is a freelance writer with a background in history of art and gender studies. She enjoys writing scripts and has had work performed at Edinburgh Fringe Festival, as well as independent venues around London. While studying at Faber Academy she threw herself into her first novel and hasn’t looked back since. She lives in Leamington Spa with her husband and springer spaniel. We All Begin as Strangers is her debut novel.
We All Begin As Strangers will be published by Orion Books on 27th April 2017.
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Review by Ross Jeffery
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