The Safe Place By Anna Downes
I’m going to kick this baby off with what I know about Anna Downes’ debut, The Safe Place. Trust me. Once I start dissecting the multitude of opinions and viewpoints that my brain has been marinating in since Saturday- literally, Saturday. Well, I’m not sure that we will make it out of that rabbit hole alive. I apologize, Ms. Downes, for this review of The Safe Place is a day late. My brain needed further time to marinate and cook.
OK. I walked right into that one. But shut-up and leave me and my brain being undercooked, alone.
For The Love Of It
One thing I know. The Safe Place is a fantastic debut from Anna Downes. Whatever Downes has planned for her next book (I can only hope it is an Adult Psychological Thriller), I am definitely here for it. Anyone who has watched the Marvel Cinematic Universe long enough knows that Mark Ruffalo enjoyed playing Bruce Banner/the Hulk more than any other actor. We know that because it came through in the acting. It was apparent how much fun he was having.
When someone loves what they are doing authentically, it fills you up. You love the experience of consuming art, even more. Anyone who listens to Supergrass understands what I’m saying. Anna Downes loves piecing together every part of a thriller. It radiates off every page of The Safe Place. There isn’t anything that I can use as “exhibit A” to prove what I’m saying is true. It isn’t a tangible part of the craft.
Thank you to Minotaur Books for an ARC of The Safe Place in exchange for an honest review
Nor am I saying that all writers don’t love what they do. Downes just has an intangible je ne sais quoi that connects her to her stories and her stories to the readers—understanding that bringing a book into the world is a gift to the reader, which then makes it theirs. Finding joy in knowing they will then make of it, what they will, by bringing in their life experiences, lens, and viewpoints, is fantastic, indeed.
Character Driven Books
Another thing I know. In writing a character-driven novel, you must, of course, have strong characters. Downes devised the four main characters: Emily, Scott, Nina, and Aureilia unapologetically, intensely, brutally, and with fierce intent. You can love them or hate them (I’ll get to that in a bit because I don’t even know), but they will evoke strong emotions one way or another. One thing none of the characters are is, meh.
A small but essential bit of side characters are utilized to provide emotional context, depth to the suspense, or cause chaos. And it works. The Safe Place’s strongest suit and I suspect Downes’ strongest attribute as a writer, lays with her characters. Throughout their arc, each character is relatable, even when you really would rather not relate to them.
She can make characters sympathetic when you hate them, loathsome when you should root for them, and oh, but how you want to protect them from themselves, let alone the world. That is some tight rope act to walk. It isn’t a matter of the characters being morally grey but having life experiences that make you bleed for them, relate to them. Downes writes them so realistically that you can’t help but think, but would I? Can I judge this person so cruelly, so harshly?
I imagine Downes was, and I promise it was worth every fight, pull, push, and argument to get them in the damn book.
That is brave writing because it is much easier to make a character cut and dry hateful so that you don’t have to argue your moral position on their actions. It is easy to judge someone if you easily hate them. And it is easy to root for the protagonist if they are instantly likable, but the world doesn’t spin so smoothly on that axis. There are brave choices that Downes makes in the thoughts and dialogue that characters have at the most desperate times of their life.
At first, it easy to have a common knee jerk reaction. But when your brain marinates. You realize that if you are honest with yourself, OK, you couldn’t say/think/do X, but can you judge THAT person, either? Maybe not so quickly and not so harshly. That is damn good character development.
Summary And Commentary On The Safe Place
Here is a quick summary of The Safe Place. Emily loses everything in the first; I don’t know, forty pages of the book. Well, everything she had, which isn’t much. She has no support system to speak of and is pretty much fucked. Scott is the CEO of a vast corporation, self-made billionaire, and as is the case with life, not at all what he seems. Beyond the pretty face, fast car, a house in France where his wife and daughter live, there are; well, there’s a there, there. There are so many monkeys in that circus that you might as well send in the clowns.
Both are sinking like the titanic, for different reasons. When the two sinking ships hit the same iceberg, they share a proverbial dingy. Both think they’ve been saved. Apparently, Emily has never read a fantasy book because I could have told her that if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck? It is a duck. Unless it is a shapeshifter. And Scott is a damn duck. But we will get to that in a minute. In the meantime, if you want to know if Scott found the solution to his secrets? Or, if the dingy Scott provides Emily from her titanic-like life, is the opportunity of a lifetime?
OK, OK… we know where that is going. AND yes, some of the Safe Place is a bit on the predictable side. That doesn’t take anything away from the suspense or enjoyment of it. From the synopsis, you know the set-up of the plot. You’ll see some of it coming.
However, and I can’t stress this enough. The characters are so riveting that they kept me completely freaked out. Even when I knew what was coming, I feared the characters’ reactions. Thus, the plot suspense was almost secondary to the characters. My focus wasn’t there. It was on the characters’ interactions and responses to the plot.
Additionally, the pacing and structure fit perfectly. So, again while there is a level of predictability, the pacing and structure help negate it. The former is break-neck, and the latter ratchets up your lungs, squeezing your ability to breathe. Combined, they deepen the mysteries you aren’t sure about and leaves you reeling between emotional upheaval and creepy, vague flashbacks.
Outside of the characters? Those flashbacks were the best driving force of the novel. Some will say that The Safe Place is told by Scott and Emily’s point of view, and it is, “officially.” However, through the flashbacks, I would argue it is also told through Nina’s. This accomplishes a myriad of essentials without bogging down the plot in infodumps or slowing down the pace to a crawl.
- Provided emotional complexity to Nina as an individual and her relationship with Scott.
- Context as to how in the devil in the blue dress they go to the current situation and what even IS the current damn situation
- Puts the reader in a really uncomfortable place, as far as – wait- how am I supposed to feel about these people again?
And again, it does all of these things in two (on average) page snippets that are at once creepy, painful, personal, distressing, and perfectly in line with Nina, and her arc.
Lastly, pieces (not all) of the ending are ambiguous. But I think that is a matter of reader preference. Objectively, the execution is there, which is what matters to me, personally. It worked in last year’s best-seller Wilder Girls by Rory Power, as well as He Started It (which comes out at the end of the month- review shortly) by Samantha Downing. If that is a structure that you enjoy, then you will eat it up.
In Which I Become John Snow
Here’s the thing. And again, though. THESE CHARACTERS. I can let my brain struggle with this right through when Downes puts out her next novel, and I’m still going to come up with a mess of conflict. Logically, as an adult, I know what I’m supposed to feel that is looking at character archetypes. I’m not going to spoil anything and say what those things are. I know that Emily is the protagonist, Scott and Nina are the antagonists, and they have a daughter Aureilia. That cues my brain on who is “good” and who is “bad.”
Except. It isn’t that easy. Nothing in the real world, but some characters have done really awful things, and some think and respond in ways I never would have expected. They think and say things you would not expect the protagonist to react. I will give you an example and keep it very general and something pretty evident because it has to happen.
As Emily realizes things are not the answer to her prayers that she thought they were; there is a confrontation of everyone knows all the there’s that are there. I assume the protagonist’s response is something along the lines of, “YOU ARE EVIL! I’M GOING TO TELL! etc…” But what if it is more along the lines of… “I trusted you. Why didn’t you trust me?“
Now before, again, you go screaming spoiler, it isn’t because whether or not she sticks with that point of view? Maybe. Maybe not. Do they get away with all the things?
My point is that my gut reaction was a shrieking scream of CHRIST ON A CROTON, HAVE YOU LOST YOUR MIND.
But then I cooked my brain a bit. And if I’m in her shoes, and as the synopsis says, I’m damn desperate, alone and have no one (which I can relate to), and I get charmed and taken in by this family that seems terrific. That I desperately NEED to be real and to love me and trust me? Maybe that is my reaction. Maybe at that moment, I am so desperate to hang onto this life that I’m willing to give everything. Perhaps I’m so down on myself that all I can see is, I told them everything, and they couldn’t trust me with the truth of themselves? It is a real emotional quagmire pulling that apart.
And then there is Scott and Nina. You know. They are meant to be hated, of course. You should hate them. But the more you learn about them. Especially Nina. Damn. The harder it is. If Nina were a poorly written victim, then you would get sick of her very quickly. If they were written as the typical wealthy couple that just did horrible things, it would be cut and dry. But nope. Downes isn’t letting the readers off that easily.
Nina especially is explored as a traumatized woman throughout her past that doesn’t just make her a victim. It makes it hard not to wish better for her, ache for her. Did I agree with her actions? No. Absolutely not. But I had a sense of empathy and understanding that I don’t think I’ve had before in this level of wrongdoing. I was shocked by my reaction to her. I didn’t like that I felt compassion for her, but I did.
I didn’t know whether to scratch my watch or wind my ass because there were times, I want to defend her till the ends of the earth, and times I wanted to throw her to the wolves. There were so many red damn flags, and she ignored them all. I wanted to beat her over the head and kidnap her rather than let her go to France. God didn’t just send her a sign; he sent her a bus that nearly hit her and a massive anxiety attack (no. seriously).
BUT, on the other hand, I get it. I’ve been that desperate. I ignored all the signs for THREE years. I listened to a narcissistic ass who said he was coming to get me, move me, and then almost left me homeless. AND THEN DID IT AGAIN. and again. for three years. And believe me, there were so many obvious signs that you would have hit me with a brick. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Three years and that is on me, myself, and I. So. conflict.
Then there is her ability to reason and rationalize to a fault. It is one thing to be grounded and logical. It is quite another to utilize that to avoid actual facts that are right the fuck in front of you. I was screaming- EMILY, you are going to rationalize yourself into an early grave. Because, why yes, yes, that is NORMALLY the case, but quite obviously, normally isn’t happening RIGHT NOW, so deal with it.
BUT here’s the thing. When I learned to drive, I had this problem. Well, the world had a problem, but that is beside the point—a basic rule of the road. If you are driving and the cars stop in front of you, you break. Fine. If I was at a red light or stop sign and the cars stopped, I stopped. No problem. However, if there was no good reason for cars to stop in front of me suddenly? If I was just driving along, and suddenly cars just slowly came to a halt. Instead of my brain instinctively hitting the brake pedal, first logic came into play.
I would think- but why are the cars stopped? They shouldn’t be stopped. I don’t see anything. So, I don’t see any reason for me to stop.
I didn’t get into an accident. I don’t know why, I probably should have. But someone- either my mom or brother was in the car when I did this at some point because I just remember someone yelling loudly- WHY AREN’T YOU STOPPING THE CAR? This made me slam on the breaks and look at them quite befuddled, explaining what I thought was completely logical. Whoever it was explained to me that it didn’t matter why JUST STOP THE CAR, THEN you can think about it all you want, but not until after the car was stopped. That solved that. See. Emily has the same problem.
I’ll just make something up as not to spoil anything. Let’s say Emily was here with me and
Pavel attacked me with a knife, Liam was about to attack me with a knife (you all know it would be Liam, don’t even pretend).
Instead of running to my aid, she would stand there watching with this running through her mind.
Cat’s can’t carry a knife. This can’t be happening. I’ve known Liam for a long time, and he would never pull a knife on Susan, so this can’t possibly be happening. Right. I’m right. I’m imagining this. I know I’m right. Yes. That must be it because he would never do that, and this is not happening.
Meanwhile, IT ABSOLUTELY IS HAPPENING, AND I’M GETTING STABBED TO DEATH BY MY CAT. For clarification. No one ever grabs a knife or attacks anyone with a knife in The Safe Place. So that is a completely made-up scenario. It is nowhere close to anything in the book. But that is how she acts. And I was screaming at her until I remembered my driving quirk.
Do you see what I mean here? These are some amazingly written characters because on the surface; you think you know. BUT when you think about it? You know nothing, John Snow.
Good lord, this is 150 words short of Nevernight, but since my last two reviews were under 1,000 words (break out the shocked faces), I guess it was due.
Anna Downes’ debut places her firmly as a new player on the Psychological Thriller playing field! I can’t wait to see what she does next. With her strength for characters, structure, and pacing, I am definitely all in on it! I can only imagine her joy for her next creation is already thrilling her as much as it will us.