A friend in need, or a deadly pest?

Caroline England – Betray Her (Piatkus, 2020)

Just how much do you tell your best friend?

Everything? Or nothing?

Betray Her is Caroline England’s third novel, although she also writes under the name Caro Land. It is an exploration of friendship, if you can call Jo and Kate friends. Having known each other since school, they don’t seem to be able to break free of their friendship, which hangs like a millstone around their necks.

Jo is a city-girl, the city in question being Manchester, while Kate has gone for more of a rural idyll. Jo is an independent professional woman. Kate stays at home with her child and bakes. Jo is newly bereaved, while Kate is decidedly coupled. Jo is childless. Kate is the personification of the Earth Mother. The two women have nothing in common, except their past.

Caroline England writes with assurance about women’s relationships – their intertwined feelings of support and competitiveness, their awkward relationships with their friends’ partners, and with their reluctance to call time on a relationship that no longer works. She beautifully conveys the strains and nuances of friendships that have lasted decades.

Her depiction of women’s relationships with men is not quite so assured. Kate’s husband, Tom Heath, is just a little too Heathcliff-ian, with his scowling anger and needlessly repressed emotions, while Jo’s gay friend is not much more than a cheerleader. “You go, girl”, he might as well shout.

However, this is not a book about men or for men, so who cares?

England has pitched her novels firmly within the area of Chick Lit, but has added large dollops of mystery and suspense too. She describes them as “domestic psychological thrillers”, differentiating them from her Caro Land novels which are courtroom based dramas, drawing on her time as a lawyer.

This novel is set solidly in the domestic, and this makes the odd swerve into psychological thriller disconcerting. It only occasionally strains credulity, however.

There are undertones of darkness from the first page of Betray Her. The two girls, both outsiders, for different reasons, first meet at boarding school and their friendship is formed more out of need than affection. A defensive alliance against school bullies.

But their friendship endures past school, which means that they know the worst of each other – every embarrassing childhood accident, every mean-spirited thought, every spiteful act. You have to stay friends with someone like that, don’t you?

Especially if one is them is dangerous.

The question for the reader is, of course, which one?

Hazell Ward

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