My husband Matthew died on an unseasonably chilly August day at dinner time. We had been together for just over ten years, married for five, and yes, we did love each other. But love changes over time, and in those final moments when I knew he was dying, well, I must confess that through the horror and the blood and the shock, the love I felt for him wasn’t quite as profound as I would have expected.
I like to start reviews with a quotation; and I like that quotation to be intriguing, funny or insightful. A good quotation. And often it is tricky to find one amongst so many within a book but in The Dinner Guest the opening paragraph of the Prologue is perhaps the best part of the novel. It is intriguing.
Alas, for me, the novel does not keep it up.
It felt like it was all downhill from this point.
As you can tell, Matthew’s death – stabbed at the dinner table – is revealed in the opening sentence so no spoilers there, and this is perhaps one problem with the novel. What could have been a gripping build up of tension where the reader questioned every character simply wasn’t. We knew the outcome. We also know within the Prologue that another character, Rachel, had telephoned the police and confessed to Matthew’s murder, and that she had not murdered him. And only two other characters were present: Charlie and Titus.
So who are these characters? Charlie and Matthew Allerton-Jones are a highly privileged white gay couple living near Marble Arch – when not visiting relatives in Scottish mansions, hobnobbing with Lords and Ladies, holidaying in The Hamptons, and dining with ex-Prime Ministers. Charlie documents their lifestyle on Instagram obsessively. And I found I could not care about them, no matter how much I tried. Their life style was completely alien to mine and felt as inauthentic as Charlie’s Instagram photos
Titus is their adoptive son and the natural son of Matthew’s dead sister. And very poorly drawn as a character in my opinion. At some points he is painfully precocious. I mean, what fourteen year old boys read Atwood? And the Saturday morning routine sounds just creepy
Usually, on a Saturday morning, Titus would go down to the kitchen at around 7.30 or 8am, already fully showered and dressed, and do an hour of studying…. Then, at 9ish, we would wander downstairs to find him laying the table for breakfast, which he would cook for us – not as some put-upon child, forced to make his parents meals. No, not one bit; he enjoyed doing it.
We are almost told that this is a routine instilled to allow Matthew and Charlie to have weekend-sex.
At other points, he is – and I apologise for the language – an utter shit. The depiction of his sex life – of Melanie who is 18 he says “No, we’re not an item. She just fucks me occasionally when we both have some spare time” – and promiscuity at that age was… disturbing, as is his assumption that Matthew and Charlie would be “casual” about it. And whilst they do confront Titus and point out the illegality of the situation, they are so wrapped up in their own lives that they then don’t deal with it.
Now don’t get me wrong. I like a precocious character; I like characters who are disturbing shits. But the same character being both? Really?
Finally, Rachel is Charlie and Matthew’s antithesis: a working class girl from Yorkshire working at a “shit general-dogsbody job” in a garden centre when she stumbles across a photo of Matthew, Charlie and Titus on Instagram. And in response she decamps to London and improbably inveigles herself into Matthew’s life – a chat in Waterstones leading to an invitation to a book club, then increasingly sophisticated jobs with Charlie’s godmother and sharing the holiday to the Framptons and invitations to Lord and Lady Ashton’s Golden Wedding Anniversary. This social rise was less than credible.
There are clearly secrets from the past that bind Rachel these characters, and the novel is both a whodunnit as a whydunnit: the unravelling of those secrets is the thrust of the novel, perhaps more than the revelation of the murderer.
Nor did I think the structure of the story helped at all: both Charlie and Rachel were narrators, and both were clearly withholding information and leaving clues with the subtlety of a sledgehammer; and the novel jumped from the day of the murder, to the year prior to the murder, to the weeks and months after the murder… It felt like reading a novel that had been seriously overplanned – you could imagine the post-it noted on Walter’s study wall being moved around. And yet the character twists and developments – which were huge – were completely unprepared for!
Maybe this was my fault as a reader.
Maybe if I were to re-read it, I would recognise the careful subtle clues that Walter had placed and I had missed.
But this is not a world I want to spend any more time in!
Plot / Pace:
Page Count: 416
Publisher: Harper Collins
Date: 1st April 2021