The Long, Long Afternoon By Inga Vesper: A tale packed with tension and intrigue - book review -
The apparent calm of a wealthy Santa Monica neighbourhood during an afternoon of stifling heat in 1959 is torn apart when a home help finds a blood-soaked kitchen and two terrified, traumatised children.
And when the police are called in to unravel the mystery of the girls’ missing mother, they soon find that the sunniest of places can hold the darkest of secrets.
In one of the most exciting, atmospheric and piercingly astute debut novels of 2021, German-born Londoner and journalist Inga Vesper takes us deep into the heart of the Fifties’ American Dream, a time and place that was extolled as the perfect way to live by many of those who looked in from the other side of the immaculate white picket fences.
That rose-tinted picture of families with apple-cheeked children, a hard-working father, and a mother who happily did the chores, the laundry and the cooking is turned on its head in this gripping mystery which explores racial tensions, domestic oppression, and the early days of the women’s rights movement.
From vivid blue pools, manicured lawns and crimson geraniums nodding in their neat terracotta pots, to the spine-tingling menace of human struggles and tragedies taking place behind closed doors, and the disturbing realities of white privilege, this is a superb slice of suburban noir with a contemporary feminist twist.
In the August sunshine of 1959, the carefully tended gardens of Sunnylakes in California wilt under the intense heat. For Joyce Haney, wife to Frank, and mother to two little girls, Barbara and baby Lily, another long, long afternoon in her ‘paradise’ stretches endlessly before her, with the prospect of the minutes crawling past ‘like slugs’ while her mind ‘crumbles into dust.’
But before the afternoon ends, Joyce will have disappeared, leaving behind her terrified children and a pool of crimson blood that runs across the kitchen floor and stains the curtains.
While the Haneys’ neighbours get busy organising search parties, it is 22-year-old black woman Ruby Wright – the family’s ‘help’ who found the horror scene when she arrived for work – who is immediately arrested by the first police officers on the scene.
In charge of the case is Detective Mick Blanke – fresh from the Big Apple and barely coping with the suffocating heat of Santa Monica – who promptly releases witness Ruby, convinced that she may hold the key to a mystery in which he quickly senses that there is ‘something off.’
Mick soon discovers Joyce was a good friend to Ruby, a strong, clever and resourceful young woman, and his first meeting with Frank Haney is inauspicious… angry and entitled, Frank has ‘a face like a fire alarm… you just want to smash it in.’
Ruby knows more about the secrets of the residents of Sunnylakes than anyone else, and it isn’t long before Mick wants her to go undercover and be neither seen nor heard. But what might the cost be to Ruby if she agrees to get involved?
In these long hot summer afternoons, simmering with lies, mistrust and prejudice, it could only take one spark for this whole ‘perfect’ world to set alight…
With vibes of Stepford Wives and The Help coursing through its veins, Vesper’s visceral and unflinching human portrait of women who have been subdued, diminished but, ultimately, not entirely broken, reveals the underestimated strength of female friendship and mutual experience.
The story unfolds through the triple narrative of the bored, restless Joyce, dogged New Yorker Mick Blanke, and star player Ruby, the astute, mistreated outsider who forms an unlikely partnership with a white police officer to unravel the shocking truths behind the starched curtains in the unsettlingly picturesque Roseview Drive.
Acutely observed and beautifully written, The Long, Long Afternoon explores what it was like to be a woman on both sides of the racial divide at a pivotal time when the civil rights and women’s rights movements were starting to hit back against decades of male oppression.
This is a divided society and the disappearance of Joyce opens a window on to a hidden world where married, middle class white women live in gilded cages, and black women are treated with cruelty and contempt. But the hunt also acts as a catalyst for revelation, resolution, and as a small – but important – jump start for future decades of feminist revolution.
In a tale packed with tension and intrigue, readers will discover lies, secrets, rivalries and prejudice at every twist and turn… and expect to be held in Vesper’s vice-like grip until the last page has turned.
A stunning debut…
(Manilla Press, hardback, £14.99)