I loved this complex and intense psycho-thriller. It spans more than 20 years and is told from three different viewpoints – Libby, Lucy, and Henry. Libby provides the warmth and charm of an ideal protagonist. Lucy is an enigmatic and exotic woman whose identity we don’t discover until almost the end.
And Henry… Henry is an extraordinary self-obsessed young boy who provides the story’s background by narrating events from the past about his childhood, family home, weird parents, and the strange guru-like figure who lodged with them, turned the whole place into a cult, and then a bizarre death-scene, leaving just one living occupant – a baby.
She is found in her cot, upstairs, alone in this large and beautiful Chelsea mansion. Happily gurgling and content, she is obviously well-fed and cared-for. She is indeed alone in the house – except for three decomposing corpses in the kitchen below.
Found on them is a shakily-scrawled note. They have been dead for several days – so who has been looking after the bonny baby?
Immediately, we meet Libby, the unpretentious heart of this story, as normal and likeable as the other characters are strange and deceptive. Libby knows she’s adopted although her adoptive mother lives abroad, and Libby is essentially alone in the world.
On her 25th birthday she discovers she has inherited an imposing house in Chelsea. It has been empty and boarded up for 20 years, and Libby knows nothing of its history or how she came to inherit it. She decides to investigate with the help of Miller, a journalist long intrigued by the house’s mysterious past; and forming an attractive (and mutually attracted) duo, they uncover a dark and complex story.
The back history of 16 Cheyne Walk, one of the best streets in London and worth millions when Libby inherits, is told by Henry in his diaries, beginning in 1988.
Then he is a teenager, living with his odd but very rich parents and younger sister. Henry never mentions the sister’s name, but recounts how their hippy-ish mother invited strangers to live in their home – among them the weird and charismatic David Thomson, who turns the household into a cult built around him.
Systematically he manipulates Henry’s family, plunders their wealth, and strips the house of its valuables.
Henry observes all this with the creepy fascination of a very, very strange child, watching closely as his mother and 14-year-old sister bend to Thomson’s will for a baby to cement his claim on the family mansion.
The other narrator is Lucy, a young single mother living hand-to-mouth in the south of France. She has two small children and scrapes a living from playing jazz violin in seedy Riviera clubs. Her story is shrouded in mystery. We learn nothing of her background until much later in the novel.
How Libby, Henry and Lucy finally discover each other makes for a compelling read. Lisa Jewell, a highly-experienced and successful novelist, reaches new heights with this dark, tangled, sophisticated thriller. The Family Upstairs is a slow-burning psychological mystery. We both loved it.