Day of the Accident by Nuala Ellwood - book review: This is a story that won’t let you go until the last page has turned

Day of the Accident by Nuala Ellwood
Day of the Accident by Nuala Ellwood

Within seconds of waking from a ten-week coma, Maggie Allan’s life is torn apart when she learns that her ten-year-old daughter is dead.

Elspeth died in the car her mother had been driving when it plunged into a river… and the police seem to suspect that Maggie, who has no memory of what happened, might be to blame because they discovered that the car doors had been unaccountably locked.

Nuala Ellwood, who was chosen as one of The Observer’s New Faces of Fiction 2017 for her brilliant debut novel My Sister’s Bones, achieves that rare thing… a stunning follow-up thriller that more than matches the first.

Day of the Accident, a dark, multi-layered page-turner tingling with psychological tension and jaw-dropping plot twists, takes readers on an emotional, mind-blowing and utterly unpredictable rollercoaster ride through the past and present as we follow Maggie’s desperate attempts to uncover the truth of that fateful day.

When Maggie finally opens her eyes in a Sussex hospital after weeks in a coma from her head injury, she feels like her brain ‘has turned to liquid’ and her words ‘are drowning it’ but even at the moment, she is still haunted by ‘dark thoughts.’

The police tell her that her daughter Elspeth – her only child who was her ‘life’– drowned when their car ended up in the river but Maggie can remember nothing of what happened and when she begs to see her husband Sean, the police tell her that he has disappeared.

Sean was last seen on the day of their daughter’s funeral and the police say they have no reason to believe that he did not leave of his own accord. And there is more shocking news when Maggie discovers that she now has no home and very little money.

Felling ‘raw’ and ‘exposed’ and with her heart ‘broken into a thousand pieces,’ Maggie sets out to discover what really happened that day at the river and where Sean has gone. And she just can’t shake off the feeling that somewhere, somehow, her daughter is still alive. ‘I would know if she were dead. I would feel it in my bones. There would be a sense of finality, a full stop.’

But does Maggie know more about that day than she is prepared to admit… or to reveal?

Ellwood’s gripping and serpentine story is a as disturbing as it is powerful, and there will be few readers who are not left reeling by that final, devilishly clever twist in the tail. But it is the journey as well as the destination that makes Day of the Accident so exciting.

The device of interspersing Maggie’s unreliable narration with the heartbreaking letters of an anonymous, lonely and desperate girl begging her mother to take her home, add an extra layer of emotional intensity and dark uncertainty to the story.

There are disturbing secrets at the core of this compelling mystery as Ellwood constantly toys with our perception of Maggie, and the truth of what really happened.

As events from the past slowly start to surface so too do uncomfortable doubts and suspicions about Maggie’s state of mind… is she a genuinely desperate mother or a dangerously delusional woman?

With plot and pacing perfectly harnessed, writing of top quality, and a superbly crafted cast of characters, this is a story that won’t let you go until the last page has turned.

(Penguin, paperback, £7.99)