Penguin book of the month: The Family Remains

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10 July 2022

Reading Time: 2 minutes

By Lisa Jewell (Century — Penguin Random House, RRP$37)

On Cheyne Walk, overlooking the Thames, stands a house – a house with a history, a story, and many, many secrets. The story of that house and what happened there is the focus of Lisa Jewell’s 2019
bestseller The Family Upstairs. It looms like a spectre over both the river and Jewell’s much-anticipated sequel, The Family Remains, which starts not with the house but with a 12-year-old boy squelching his way along the river’s muddy banks and finding a black bin bag sitting on some shingle: a bag of human remains.

The inevitable question with any sequel is, “Do I have to read the first book first?” The answer here is, “No, but you really, really should.” As a true sequel, The Family Remains is a continuation and a development of an existing story and it assumes the reader has been in that house and knows its past. You can come into The Family Remains fresh and it provides and recounts enough background for the uninitiated, but doing so means neutering and cheating oneself of the Gothic thrill of its predecessor and consequently the intricacies and depth this sequel layers on.

Integrally dependent on its predecessor yet also able to stand alone, The Family Remains is a delightful paradox, wonderful in its oxymoronic contradictions. The answer to the mystery of the bag of bones is essentially known to the reader from the start, whereas elements that seem predictable and fait accompli are charmingly twisted into refreshing surprises. Its tone and atmosphere are intensely calm, creepily banal, and thrilling in their sparseness of incident. Some mysterious power compels us to voraciously devour its moments of stillness at a clip, then draws its moments of high action with a degree of detail and nuance that demands one linger on the page.

Under a guise of the trappings and tropes of genre – the police procedural opening of the unwitting local discovering body parts; the wrecking, revenging, and resurrection of a wronged woman; the international thriller cache of fake passports, false identities and passing mention of Interpol and hacking; the Gothic horror of a haunting house and an unspeakable past; – The Family Remains is, in all its facets, a story about trauma, what it can do to us, and what we do with it. Its events may be outrageous fiction, but its treatment of the subject may just bring one to tears, “proper tears. Tears of wonder and gratitude, and also tears of relief, because even though [it] is a lie it also could be true.”

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