Don’t even bother reading this review. Just go over to the till and buy the book. You’re going to love it. I don’t know anyone who’s read it who doesn’t. Erin Kelly has pulled off a real achievement here – a novel with more twists and turns than Hampton Court maze; characters you can identify with and believe in; and an eerie, haunting backdrop formed by the central theme of solar eclipses.
Kelly’s story opens in August 1999, the last time the UK experienced a total eclipse of the sun (the next won’t be until 2090, so it was very much a once-in-a-lifetime experience). The best place to see it was Cornwall, where totality (when the sun is completely blocked by the moon) was guaranteed.
We are at Lizard Point with Kit and Laura, a young couple who are committed eclipse-chasers. They have come to the extreme end of England to witness an extreme event. Of course, it is cloudy. But Kelly writes it beautifully.
“‘It’s coming. There.’ Kit nodded to his left, and pointed his camera. A wall of night pressed in toward us from the Atlantic, a black veil being dragged across the sky… at that moment, a hole was torn through the cloud and the sun was partly visible, a sooty black disc surrounded by a ring of pure light.”
As a matter of fact, Judy and I were in Cornwall for the ’99 eclipse – and it was a stunning experience. But Kelly gives us a grim, shocking sequel as the light begins to return.
Laura, walking away from their vantage point when the eclipse is over, follows a trail of coins scattered on the ground. It leads her to a violent scene. A woman is lying face-down in the mud, a man on top of her. Her face is contorted with fear. ‘That kind of animal terror is something you recognise when you see it, you don’t need to have experienced it.’
It is obvious to Laura that she has interrupted a rape. The man jumps to his feet and, denying he has done anything wrong, runs away.
Kit and Laura call the police and from this point, although they don’t know it yet, their lives will be utterly changed. Kelly draws us into a strange half-world where nothing is as it seems. A sense of impending doom pervades the pages; is Beth – the woman Laura believes was being raped – truly a victim? And what exactly is her growing relationship with the couple who ‘saved’ her?
There is a tense, agonising courtroom scene where Laura gives her witness statement against the alleged attacker, and is shredded by his defence lawyer. She ends up perjuring herself by embellishing her account. It’s painful stuff.
He Said She Said is a wonderfully-wrought plot that will have you suspecting everyone you think you can trust, and questioning everything you thought you understood. Misdirection, false leads and double-bluffs abound. A fabulously rewarding read with a blistering finish. Enjoy.
Read an Extract from He Said She Said by Erin Kelly
11 August 1999
The day of the eclipse dawned dull and chilly. We woke up at eight, even though we’d been working till midnight and after that we’d gone dancing. A girl with a pot of golden body paint gave me and Ling a two-for-one deal: we had had flaming suns painted on our bare arms even though it was so cold that our bodies gave off steam. We’d found a little tent playing trance and gone wild. Now most of the body paint was on my hands and the sleeping bag; still, that smudged golden sun was the only one we were likely to see. When Kit poked his head out of the tent I thought he was going to cry. ‘I’ve never been clouded out before,’ he said. ‘I know it happens, there’s a one in six chance, but I just can’t see how it’ll be the same.’
An hour before first contact, I packed a little bag and Kit checked his camera for the millionth time. We wandered past the Waltzer and the Ferris wheel, through the trees to the stall. In the absence of customers, Mac and Ling were in the chill-out area, giggling hysterically. ‘Yo!’ said Mac in greeting. I studied them like a vice-squad cop; their eyes were pin-sharp, so not dope: their jaws were still, so not E; so acid, which meant they were good for nothing for the rest of the day.
‘You’re taking the piss,’ said Kit. I knew it wasn’t prudishness, or even frustration at the loss of money, so much as anger at Mac’s lack of respect for the phenomenon. ‘Let’s leave them to it,’ he said to me. ‘I couldn’t care less about making a profit now.’
They didn’t even notice us go.
The main stage was as busy as we’d seen it, the field packed full of people nodding in time to thin trance music and squinting hopefully at the white sky. Many of them were wearing their protective goggles, Mylar-coated lenses in cardboard frames, even though there would be nothing to see for some time. Occasional shafts of light broke through, to sparse whoops and whistles that died away as the clouds closed over. Kit looked nervously around the crowd.
Kit’s melancholy had given way to agitation now. He held my hand so tight that I had to pull it away.
‘There’s no horizon here,’ he said. ‘If we’re going to be clouded out, then we want to be able to see as much sky as possible.’
We turned slowly in a circle.
‘What’s on the other side of those trees?’ I asked. ‘There might be a better view there.’
The other side of those trees turned out to be full of parked vans and the HGVs that had brought the funfair equipment. There was an abandoned dodgem whose seats had been slashed so that the stuffing was foaming out; a vital-looking piece of equipment, something that looked like the whole arm from one of those spider rides. I resolved not to go on a single ride. Behind all these was the perimeter fence, cutting off the sky at twenty feet.
‘It’s worse here than at the stage,’ grumbled Kit.
‘Hang on,’ I said. There was a lorry parked right next to the fence, its roof level with the top of it. I looked at Kit, then up at the top.
‘We can’t,’ he said, but he did a recce of the vehicle, looking first in the driver’s cab and then in through the windows before giving me the thumbs-up. He was up in one graceful bound; I clambered like a monkey, my fingers clinging to the wing mirrors, and my feet finding purchase on the bottom of the windscreen, until Kit pulled me up the last few feet.
Even on an overcast day, the view was a picture painted just for us. Green hills rolled down to the sea in the distance. Where yesterday we had had the clifftops to ourselves, today the grass and heather were stubbled with tourists. Through some trick of the air, the music sounded better up here than it did by the stage, the doof-doof bass less fuzzy, the electric treble cleaner. I took the eclipse goggles from my jeans pocket and wiped the plasticky lenses on the hem of my jumper. One of our customers last night had told us there was a shortage of the glasses on site; apparently pairs were changing hands for up to fifty pounds. I took mine off; they were just a strip of paper and plastic in my hand. I wondered how often an object is priceless one minute and valueless the next. Kit’s melancholy had given way to agitation now. He held my hand so tight that I had to pull it away.
I was torn between wanting it to be over so that we could talk about it and never wanting it to end.
‘Sorry,’ he said, rubbing my crushed knuckles back to life. Then the winds began.
Kit had of course told me about the eclipse winds, an unearthly portent that can range from a breeze to a near-hurricane. It whipped my hair into silver streamers that Kit smoothed down with his hands then caught and held at the nape of my neck. It was storybook weather, a prelude to a fairy tale. ‘It’s coming,’ he said. Without sight of the sun, the leaching of the light was slow and undramatic; dusk, remarkable only for its eerie timing. Behind us, the festival continued, a screeching treble and a dirty bass building to a crescendo the experience didn’t seem to warrant. Every now and then someone would shout ‘Come on sun!’ as if they were cheering on a Brit in the Wimbledon final. Despite the slicing wind, the clouds above remained a solid mass.
‘There.’ Kit nodded to his left, and pointed his camera. I followed his gaze and lost my breath. A wall of night pressed in towards us from the Atlantic, a black veil being dragged across the sky. I gasped like I was falling. A lone starling in a tree began a frantic chirping, and the music reached a screeching climax, where I had expected a reverential hush. (I would have the opposite feeling a few years later when we travelled to Tromsø to see the Northern Lights; I had been surprised at their silence, that they didn’t make a whistling noise or crack like whips as they sliced through the air.) Somewhere, far inland, fireworks sounded. ‘I didn’t know the darkness could be so beautiful,’ said Kit, aiming his lens at the horizon.
As if he had summoned it, at that moment, a hole was torn lengthways through the cloud and the sun was partly visible, a sooty black disc surrounded by a ring of pure light. Kit’s camera clicked and reloaded next to my ear. An ecstatic cheer carried on the strange winds from all around us. There were none of the phenomena I’d hoped for: no shooting corona, no sun leaking through the moon’s craters to create the diamond ring effect, and in a few seconds it was gone, but still I felt changed, as if a giant hand had reached down from the sky and touched me. I was torn between wanting it to be over so that we could talk about it and never wanting it to end. But it did end; the veil pushed east and the colours came back.
I felt suddenly shy around Kit, after the weird heavenly intimacy of what we’d just experienced.
‘I don’t know what to do with myself now,’ I said.
He screwed the lens cap back on tightly.
‘I’ve got a massive boner,’ he suggested.
But even knowing what followed, I don’t think I could have walked on by.
I laughed, and let him guide me down from the top of the lorry, where I landed in his arms with a thud that toppled him over. We were wrapped together so tightly that the only way to walk was to fall into step, as though in a three-legged race. I had to watch where I was treading; if I hadn’t, I might never have seen the purse. It was a little zipper wallet made of brightly coloured wool in an Aztec pattern. I bent to pick it up; there were three five-pound notes inside, and some coppers, but no ID.
‘Maybe leave it there in case they come back,’ said Kit.
‘But anyone could pick it up. That could be all someone’s money. All they’ve got for the rest of the festival. All they’ve got to get home. There’s that police Portakabin thing near the entrance. We should give it in there, if we don’t see anyone on the way.’
‘All right, if it makes you happy.’ Kit rolled his eyes. ‘I’ll go that way and see if I can see anyone who looks like they’ve just lost a purse.’
‘Thanks,’ I said, distracted; I’d noticed a coin on the ground a few yards away, and then another.
We dropped hands, and it was the last time everything was perfect.
I have replayed that moment in my head so many times since then. If I could live the Lizard again, would I pick up the purse? There is part of me – the cocksure insistence of hindsight – that says I should have left it on the ground and gone back with Kit. But even knowing what followed, I don’t think I could have walked on by. Perhaps, though, I would have gripped Kit a little tighter, for a heartbeat longer, and savoured perfection while I held it in my hand.
Book Club Questions for He Said She Said
1. HE SAID/SHE SAID is a story about what we believe and who we trust – whether that is other people or our own memories. As you read the book, did you find your opinions changing about what really happened, and who was telling the truth? In what ways?
2. There have been many rape trials where the evidence has fallen down to whose version of events you believe. Has the novel given you a different perspective on such cases? What do you think of the current trial system, and the way the media reports on these stories?
3. Did you think anyone was more to blame for the mistakes and misunderstandings that drive the story? What would you have done if you were in Laura’s shoes – or Kit’s?
4. What do you think will happen next – and what do you want to happen next?