Book review: In My House by Alex Hourston

When a lonely, middle-aged recluse rescues an Albanian teenager from human traffickers at Gatwick airport, the two very different women form an unlikely friendship.

Thursday, 11th June 2015, 10:40 am
In My House by Alex Hourston
In My House by Alex Hourston

And as the troubled, vulnerable but manipulative victim insinuates herself into the life – and home – of her secretive Good Samaritan, the past and present are set on a hazardous collision course.

Welcome to Alex Hourston’s highly original and accomplished debut novel, an exciting blend of mystery, human drama and psychological tension that is guaranteed to intrigue, unsettle… and impress.

We meet love, loss, regret, guilt and corrosive secrets as Hourston whisks us away to a quiet suburb of London where one woman’s life journey finally takes off just as her new friend’s personal history unravels with unexpected results.

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It was an unforgettable finale to 57-year-old Maggie Benson’s walking holiday. As she queued for the toilets at Gatwick airport, a young woman ‘giving off an animal panic’ approached her and whispered a single word… ‘help.’

Maggie alerted the authorities and in that moment she saved a stranger, earning 19-yearold Albanian Anja Maric her freedom and ensuring the arrest of a brutal trafficker.

Up until this point, Maggie has been living a life of careful routines and measured pleasures… walking her dog, keeping away from the centre of things and remaining happily on the fringes.

But when the story of her airport drama gets picked up by the newspapers, Maggie is panicked by the publicity, as well as the strange, silent phone calls that are disturbing her suburban peace.

Meanwhile Anja has asked to make contact with Maggie. She wants to thank her rescuer but after a brief and rather uncomfortable meeting in an impersonal café, Anja soon becomes a regular visitor to Maggie’s home.

Maggie ‘once believed it possible to vanish’ but now she finds that she can’t be alone in the same way and, without realising it, she has come to depend on Anja’s companionship.

As the relationship with Anja intensifies, Maggie begins to reveal her long-hidden secrets, a picture of her past takes shape and we are drawn into her slippery moral maze in which every choice is compromised…

In My House is so powerful and so beautifully written that it is hard to believe this gripping, fascinating story marks Hourston’s literary debut. Seen through the unfolding thought processes of our edgy, reluctant narrator Maggie, the plot is punctuated by events in her past that slowly but surely open a window onto the present.

While there are comparisons to Zoë Heller’s Booker-shortlisted Notes on a Scandal, Hourston’s novel is a far gentler affair as she uses the fraught dynamics between the two women as a catalyst for a remarkable and insightful character-driven study of the effects of repression and loneliness.

This is a tale not just of our times but of days gone by when emotions were dangerously stifled and the truth was often swept under the carpet. Hourston plays to this theme with subtlety and finesse to mark out a tantalising and compelling first novel.

(Faber, hardback, £14.99)