Half Broken Things

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A gripping tale of psychological suspense perfect for the readership of Minette Walters and Ruth Rendell, Half Broken Things is a novel that peers into the lives of three dangerously lost people…and the ominous haven they find when they find each other.

Jean is a house sitter at the end of a dreary career. Steph is nine months pregnant and on the run. And Michael is a thief. Through a mixture of deceit, good luck, and misfortune, these three damaged loners have come together at ...

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A gripping tale of psychological suspense perfect for the readership of Minette Walters and Ruth Rendell, Half Broken Things is a novel that peers into the lives of three dangerously lost people…and the ominous haven they find when they find each other.

Jean is a house sitter at the end of a dreary career. Steph is nine months pregnant and on the run. And Michael is a thief. Through a mixture of deceit, good luck, and misfortune, these three damaged loners have come together at a secluded country home called Walden Manor. Now all three have found what they needed most: a new beginning, a little kindness, a little love. Living off the manor’s riches, tending its grounds and gardens, they leave the outside world far behind and build a happiness so long denied them. That is, until the first unexpected visitor arrives...igniting a chain reaction that is at once spellbinding and disastrous.

A stunning, thought-provoking crime novel of chilling moral complexity, Half Broken Things is a gripping, haunting exploration of love and our need for it, of the damage done when we go long without it, and the deeds we might be driven to in its name.

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Editorial Reviews

Marilyn Stasio
Through the intimacy of her narrative voice and the depth and deftness of her characterizations, Joss directs the play-acting of this pseudofamily into deadly serious territory, forcing the reader to weigh the human need for love against the desperate measures people will take to protect it.
— The New York Times
Richard Lipez
I haven't read the Scottish-born Morag Joss's three mysteries set in Bath and featuring cellist Sara Selkirk, but if they're half as good as Half Broken Things, her first stand-alone psychological-suspense novel, readers should scoop them up. Joss has one of the freshest, keenest mystery-writing voices to come out of the United Kingdom since Ruth Rendell creeped us out with a string of characters as cozy as Aunt Flo and as unhinged as Vlad the Impaler.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
British author Joss's brilliantly conceived, finely executed novel, which captured the CWA's Silver Dagger Award, offers psychological suspense of the highest order. The catalyst for a trio of misfits is Jean, a 64-year-old housesitter on the verge of forced retirement. Her last assignment is lengthy: nine months alone at an isolated country house, Walden Manor, whose wealthy owners are abroad for an extended stay. Jean's first casual liberties with the house are almost accidental. Then, as she begins to think of the place as home, she becomes bolder. She welcomes Michael, a middle-aged, less-than-successful thief, who becomes her "lost" son, and the pregnant, unmarried and abused Steph, who becomes her daughter-in-law. In Joss's capable hands, these three lonely losers begin to craft a family life. Even as they use another's property to do so, they're as appealing as they are appalling. How long will their idyll last? How far will they go to preserve it? What crimes are too great? This is a must-read. Joss is also the author of the Sara Selkirk mystery series (Fruitful Bodies, etc.). Agent, Jean Naggar. (Sept.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
British suspense writer Joss (Funeral Music) won CWA's Silver Dagger Award for this novel about Jean, a housesitter being forced into retirement. With nothing to lose and nowhere to go, Jean moves into the master bedroom of the lovely Walden Manor, her final posting. She dons the owners' clothes, raids the wine cellar, and assembles an impromptu family that includes Michael, a petty criminal, and Steph, a pregnant woman searching for a place to belong. Joss does a credible job of showing how Jean and her guests at Walden Manor find a sense of community they've never before experienced. But then tension mounts as the owners' return draws ever closer and the interlopers become more desperately ensconced in their borrowed home. Jean pleads for understanding for herself and her fellow cohorts, but they are so cold-blooded in their pursuit of happiness that the reader may end up racing through the story as much to get away from these horrifying people as to find out what happens to them. Recommended where suspense fiction is in demand.-Jane la Plante, Minot State Univ. Lib., ND Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Intriguing interior narrative by British crime novelist Joss explores the deviant pleasures of the solitary elderly housesitter. At age 64, Jean, a housesitter for the Town and Country agency, has reached retirement age. Her final job as caretaker of the Walden Manor in Bath allows her to take stock of her paltry spinster existence as an unloved, adopted daughter who creates imaginary characters who care about her. When Jean accidentally shatters a teapot full of keys, she is able to unlock rooms in the beautiful old house where she will reside from January to September; in her extreme loneliness, she begins to assume the identity of the inhabitants, shedding her old clothes and inventing a grown son she once gave up for adoption and for whose return she advertises in a women's magazine. Two-bit hustler Michael answers the ad, bringing with him a young pregnant woman he has just met, Steph, who is fleeing her abusive boyfriend, and the misfits make themselves happily at home over several months. Joss further complicates the mix by introducing the miraculous birth of the baby in the house, and then its mysterious death, followed by Steph's determination to become a babysitter for a toddler whose mother is a divorced solicitor. Yet Michael's past as a thief of religious objects catches up with him when a provincial curate comes to visit, and the threesome's idyllic front of normalcy collapses abruptly. These are damaged characters in an unforgiving class-conscious society, and despite the hiatus of grace they find together, Joss punishes Jean for her lifelong docility and selflessness. The ending, depressingly, slides into a doomed futility. A grim, courageous work that crosses into dark,interior regions American readers rarely dare to tread.
From the Publisher
"Psychological suspense of the highest order ... brilliantly conceived.... This is a must-read."—Publishers Weekly, starred review

"Surrealistic, unsettling ... made spookier by Joss' polite, poetic prose."—Entertainment Weekly (A-)

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780753118030
  • Publisher: ISIS Large Print Books
  • Publication date: 7/28/2004
  • Series: Isis Cassettes Series
  • Format: Cassette
  • Edition description: Unabridged, 9 Cassettes, 10 hrs. 08 mins
  • Product dimensions: 6.70 (w) x 8.80 (h) x 2.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Morag Joss grew up on the west coast of Scotland. Her first Sara Selkirk novel, Funeral Music, was nominated by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association for the Dilys Award for the year’s favorite mystery. Her fourth novel, Half Broken Things, won the 2003 CWA Silver Dagger Award. Morag Joss lives in the country outside the city of Bath and in London.

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Read an Excerpt

Half Broken Things

By Morag Joss

Random House

Morag Joss
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0440335590

Chapter One


Walden Manor August

This is not what it might look like. We're quiet people. As a general rule extraordinary things do not happen to us, and we are not the type to go looking for them. But so much has happened since January, and I started it. Things began to happen, things I must have brought about somehow without quite foreseeing where they would lead. So I feel I must explain, late in the day though it is. I'm going to set out, as clearly as I can, in the order in which they occurred, the things that have happened here. And I shall find it difficult because I was brought up not to draw attention to myself and I've never been considered a forthcoming person, never being one to splurge out on anything, least of all great long explanations. Indeed, Mother always described me as secretive. But that was because, with her, I came to expect my reasons for things to be not so much misunderstood as overlooked or mislaid, and so early on I stopped giving them.

Father was usually quiet, too. When I think back to the sounds of the house in Oakfield Avenue where I grew up, I do not remember voices. I think we sighed or cleared our throats more often than we spoke words. I remember mainly the tick of Father's longcase clock in the dining room we never ate in, and then after the clock had gone, a particular silence throughout the house that I thought of as a shade of grey. And much later when I was an adult, still there looking after Mother, the most regular sound was the microwave. It pinged a dozen times a day. In fact, until recently, whenever I heard a certain tone of ping, in a shop or somewhere like that, I would immediately smell boiling milk. But when I was a child there was just the clock, with silences in between.

Mother had few words herself. She often went about the house as if she were harbouring unsaid things at great personal cost, with a locked look on her mouth. That being so, I suppose Father and I felt unable to open our own mouths very much. What happens to all the things you might say or want to say, but don't? Well, they don't lie about in your head indefinitely, waiting to be let out. For a time they may stay there quite patiently, but then they shuffle off and fade until you can't locate them any more, and you realise they're not coming back. By then you're past caring.

So I grew to think of myself as someone not in particular need of words. I did not acquire the habit of calling them up; not many at a time at least, not even to myself in my own head. Things in my head had been very quiet for a long time, before all this.

But I have been wrong about this aspect of myself, as about others. I find that there are words there after all. Now that I need them, my words have come crowding back, perhaps because I have a limited time in which to get them all down (today is the 20th, so only eleven more days). I am pleased that my hands remember the old touch-typing moves without seeming to involve me at all. The letters are hitting the paper in this old typewriter almost as if they were being shot out of my finger-ends. Which is just as well, because I'm busy enough dealing with all the clamouring words that are flinging themselves around in my head, fighting over which gets fired out first. I'm in a hurry to let them loose. I want to explain, because it is suddenly extremely urgent and important that, in the end, we are not misunderstood.

And I shall try to put down not just what, but why things have happened and why none of it could have turned out any differently. Until now I really haven't thought about the why. Time's the thing. I haven't had time, not time of the right kind, to ask myself why things have gone the way they have. I've been too busy being happy; even now I'm happy, although the time left is of the other kind. But I'm quite content to spend it trying to puzzle it all out and write it down. It's a pleasant way to pass time, sitting over the typewriter at the study window and looking out now and then to wave at them (that's Michael, Steph and Charlie) down there in the garden. They're not doing much. Steph is singing to Charlie and rocking him on her lap: 'Row, row, row the boat'--that's one of Charlie's favourites--and the more she rocks the more he likes it. They're waving back now. I've told them I've got to write a report for the agency and in a way, that's almost true, so they're making pretend-sad faces up at me because I can't spend the afternoon with them. And now Steph's got hold of Charlie's wrist and she's making him wave too. Behind them, I can see three different kinds of Michaelmas daisy in the border, three nice shades of purple. But the roses are on their second flowering now and look as if the air's gone out of them, as if they've stayed too long at the party.

Anyway, I'm going off the point. I was saying that I'm going to explain everything. And while I cannot imagine any explanation for anything that does not also contain an element of justification, I am not trying to offer excuses for what we have done. But nor am I apologising, quite, except for the mess and inconvenience, which are bound to be considerable.

So how did it start? With the letter from the agency? Or with the advertisement I placed? Perhaps much earlier, years and years ago, with Jenny. Jenny is the niece I invented for myself. Yes, perhaps that reveals a tendency. She started as just a little harmless face-saving white lie which of course led to others, and in no time at all the fact that she did not exist was neither here nor there. My niece became quite real to me, or as real as somebody living in Australia ever could be, in my mind. I haven't travelled abroad.

No, now that I reflect, it started with this place, with the house itself. Because the house made me feel things from the very first which perhaps I should find strange, it being my fifty-eighth. Memories are a little blurred after fifty-seven in eighteen years, but I do know I'd never felt things before. This is the fifty-eighth house, although I've sat some houses more than once because people used to ask for me again. I specialise, or I did, in long stays. 'We have the perfect lady, flexible, no ties, usually available' was how I was recommended. I spell this out just so that it is clear that I have been well thought of. Inexperience has nothing to do with it. Nor was it anything to do with malice or jealousy.

The house when I came was full of old things; fuller than it is now, for reasons I will come to. Many of them were not in mint condition, and I liked them like that. I liked the way they sat about the house in little settlements, as if they had sought one another out and were sticking together, little colonies of things on small island table tops. There were the boxes: workboxes with velvet linings and silver spools and scissors and dear little buttonhooks, boxes with tiny glass bottles with stoppers missing, writing boxes still cedar scented and ink-stained on the inside, yellowed carved ivory boxes, and painted and enamel ones--I suppose for snuff, those ones--but I wasn't concerned about their original purpose. Then there were the small silver things in the drawing room, the heavy paper knife with a swan's head, the magnifying glass, a round box with a dent, the filigree basket with the twisted handle, a vase for a single rose. The blue and white porcelain in the dining room, some of it chipped, and the fans in the case in the library, of beaded lace, faded painted parchment and tired-looking feathers. Even some of the books: nearly everything else was modern, but on three shelves there were sets of very old books with cracked spines and faint titles. They all had that look of being dusted in cinnamon and gave off a leafy smell that reminded me of church. Inside, many of the pages were loose, and so thin that the print on the other side grinned right through the words when I tried to read, as if they were not unreadable enough already.

But all these things seemed content in their imperfections; they were not shouting out to be mended the way new things are. New things so often break before there has been time for them to fade and crumble. Here, it was as if the things had simply been around long enough to be dropped or bent or knocked, and every one of these minute, accidental events had been patiently absorbed, as if the things knew themselves to be acceptable and thought beautiful just as they were. If objects could give contented sighs, that's what these would have done. I wanted to be like that. I wondered if I, also fading and crumbling as everything does in the end, could be like that. Yes, I remember wondering that right from the start, in those first few days of January.

The third day, like the first two, slipped away and got lost somewhere in the folds of the afternoon. As before, Jean had made the dusting of the objects in the house last for most of the morning. She had vacuumed the floors again and cleaned her bathroom, unnecessarily. After her lunch of milky instant coffee and biscuits she tidied round the kitchen. When she could fool herself no longer that there was anything left to do she mounted the carved wooden stairs and walked the upper floors, again feeling mildly inquisitive, as if the house and the rest of the day might be conspiring to withhold something from her. Again, pointlessly, she tried the three doors she knew to be locked. Then she wandered with less purpose, pausing here and there, her vague eyes watching how light displaced time in the many other rooms of the house. Light entered by the mullioned windows, stretched over floors and panelled walls and lay down across empty beds. It lay as cold and silent as a held breath over furniture and objects and over Jean lingering in each doorway; it claimed space usually taken by hours and minutes which, outside, continued to pass. Through windows to the west Jean saw how the wind was moving the bare trees that bordered the fields; through the south windows she watched grass shivering in the paddock, watched as clouds pasted onto the sky bulged and heaved a little. Inside, the afternoon aged; its folds sank and deepened, closed over the last of the daylight and sucked it in. When it was quite dark Jean walked again from room to room, touching things gently and drawing curtains. So the third day passed, with Jean watching as it seemed not to do so, unaware that she was waiting.

She was keeping the letter from the agency in the pocket of her thick new cardigan, the Christmas present she had bought and wrapped for herself so that she would have something to open 'from my niece Jenny in Australia' in front of the other residents on Christmas morning. For this year, finding herself again be- tween house-sitting jobs over the holiday, she had been obliged to spend Christmas at the Ardenleigh Guest House. It was Jean's fifth Christmas there in eighteen years, and Jenny had sprung into being the very first time when, one day at breakfast, a depressed old lady had invited Jean to agree with her that Christmas was quite dreadful when you were getting on and nobody wanted you. It had sounded like an accusation; Jean had then been in her late forties but suspected she looked older. She ignored the assumption about her age and concentrated on the 'unwanted' allegation. She heard herself saying, Oh, but I didn't have to come here! In fact my . . . my niece begged me to come to her! But I told her oh no, I shan't come this year, thank you, dear. Thank you, Jenny dear, I said, but no, I'll make other arrangements. And then of course the old lady had asked her why. Oh, well. Well, she's having a baby soon, her third. So I thought, it wouldn't be fair to add to the workload this year. Then she added, in a voice loaded with dread, You see, she's not having an easy pregnancy.

Several of the residents were permanent, and the next time Jean had to spend Christmas there one of them asked, too eagerly, how the niece was getting on. She could not bear to disappoint--it was as if during the intervening two years the residents had been on the edge of their seats waiting for news--so she found herself telling them about the baby (quite a toddler now, into everything!), adding that this year they were away, spending Christmas with Jenny's husband's family. And it was the same the next time, at which point Jean lost her nerve and packed them all off to live in Australia. But she discovered that the Ardenleigh residents had formed a high opinion of Jenny, and it did not seem right to Jean to sully her niece's reputation by allowing her, just because she had emigrated, to forget her old aunt in England. It did not seem the kind of thing Jenny would do. So for Ardenleigh Christmases she now produced Jenny's thoughtful present, relieved not to have to produce also another reason, beyond the unbearably long flight (at her age), for not spending Christmas 'Down Under'.

But this year it seemed that Jenny had slipped up, because the cardigan was not a success. Jean had chosen it thinking its colour 'amethyst' and realised, now that it had been hers for over a week, that it was just a muddy purple. But it did not occur to her not to wear it even though it now disappointed; she wrapped herself snugly into her mistake just as she kept the letter close as a reminder to be at all times braced against the temptation to forget it. It lay in her cardigan pocket. In the mornings, bending to dust the feet of a table or to unplug the vacuum cleaner, Jean would sometimes feel it crackle next to her, as if a small, sharp part of herself had broken off and was hanging loose against her side. It puzzled her, almost, to find that she was not actually in pain. Sometimes she would take the envelope from her pocket and look at it, but she did not read the letter again.

Yet, somewhere in the course of the afternoons, Jean would arrive at an amnesty with the presence of the letter. As daylight took its leave, it seemed to wrap up and bear away the threat that seeped from her cardigan pocket. She could feel that the letter itself was still there, but she would begin to regard it with a sort of detached astonishment, which grew into simple disbelief that marks on a piece of paper should hold any power over her. Walking from room to room, switching on lamps, it seemed amazing to her that only this morning she had thought the letter had any meaning at all.


Excerpted from Half Broken Things by Morag Joss Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 13 )
Rating Distribution

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Sort by: Showing 1 – 14 of 13 Customer Reviews
  • Posted October 5, 2009


    Had to put this down. The title character's decisions in this book just don't make sense. She knows she is headed for trouble and yet goes forward with her charade as the owner of the house she is sitting. The reader is waiting for the shoe to drop at all times. Not even in a suspenseful way but in a feeling of dread. I found this book dreary and sad. When she posts for a made up son, you really can't believe someone would really do something so ridiculous. Not an interesting book, would not give it away. Reads flat!

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted August 28, 2009

    A sad tale of how we can all be broken.

    As I read this book, I became more and more nervous about what would happen to the characters. This is a book that you know from the onset will not have a happy ending. The broken pieces of the characters could remind you of how easy it is to create another reality.
    The writing is quite good. The author describes history and love in a unique manner and gives the words a new voice.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 13, 2015

    Movie material?

    Why yes!
    There is a movie. This book led me to read
    Everything else Joss has written.
    It is the receipient of one of England's
    Dagger awards. Now do your homework
    And look up other books granted this honor,
    You will be glad you did!
    Happy Reading

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 31, 2009

    Sympathetic Criminals

    Despite their weak character traits and actions that range from mildly careless to downright horrific, Morag Joss is amazingly successful in making the three main characters of this story--Jean, Michael, and Steph--sympathetic to the reader. Each of them comes to Walden Manor with some baggage, a history of being or at least feeling unloved and unwanted, and that past shapes their behaviors, sending them down a dangerous path of destruction in their desperate desire to hold onto the Eden they have created for themselves. Each have long-established coping mechanisms to shut out the reality that is bubbling below the surface, but there will come a point when it can no longer be ignored. An excellent story that builds suspense.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    A gritty thriller

    Town and Country Sitters sent the letter to subcontracted house sitter Jean that after she completes the current nine-month assignment at Bath¿s Walden Manor, she will receive no further work because she will have turned sixty-five and cannot obtain insurance. Melancholy, Jean has lived alone even as an adopted child as her new parents never showered her with love. Over the years she made up imaginary relatives like her niece Jenny who cared what happens to her.................... In Walden Manor, Jean accidentally shatters a teapot containing a set of keys that enable the lonely woman to open the upstairs lock rooms and her imagination as a resident of Walden Manor. She creates a grown son that years before she was forced to give up for adoption and advertises in a magazine pleading for his return. Con artist Michael responds accompanied by a pregnant woman, Steph, whom he just met as she flees from her abusive boyfriend. The trio forges a happy home though the end state countdown begins when Steph¿s baby is born but inexplicably dies and a country curate who is visiting recognizes Michael as a thief.................... Even without Sara Selkirk appearing, Morag Joss is a brilliant virtuoso playing a dark concerto that grips the audience as few novels can. The lead trio is damaged goods that society ignores each finds solace in the loving family unit they form together leading to the audience to wonder how far any one of them or as a ¿mob¿ will go to protect what they now believe is theirs. Though British, fans of deep family dramas will appreciate this gritty thriller that recolor ¿values¿ from red to blue.................... Harriet Klausner

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 2, 2011


    The story is definitely unique and I find myself thinking that an entertaining movie might be able to be made from this. This was the first book I have read from this author but I found it difficult to stay interested. The writing style bored me and almost from the beginning I just had a feeling of dread. After I would quit reading for the day or night I just felt a bit depressed rather than being anxious to pick the book up again, but I got through it. I believe the author wanted one to be sympathetic to the main characters, but I actually couldn't stand them. The decisions the characters make in the book seem so unrealistic and so irresponsible, I found myself frustrated. Maybe in that way the author does a good job because they do get some kind emotion out of you whether it is bad or good. This book was not right for me but others may just love it.

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  • Posted January 9, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    How far will desperation drive us?

    A house sitter who has never had a family is informed that now she won't be house-sitting, either. She is turning 65, and has only a future in a boarding house to look forward to until death. Having nothing to lose makes her reckless and indifferent to rules and ethics. She becomes a quiet revolutionary in the class struggle, and takes over all the rooms of the big house she is sitting, the mistress's clothes as well as its wine cellar and its freezer full of meat. When she gets a chance to pretend to be the mother of a stray thief who has a pregnant hanger-on, both always as unloved and poor as she, she takes it, and they become an odd family. Even though the ending has its logic, fascist though it is on the house-sitter's part, I wasn't quite ready for it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 29, 2006

    Beware of the house sitter

    Half Broken Things was the first book by Morag Joss I've read, but I look forward to reading her other works. Like Rendell, Joss creates seemingly regular people with their own special problems and sets them in a relatively comfortable and safe evnironment, but it all slowly goes terribly wrong. However, since we the readers have come to relate to her characters, we want to overlook their malevolence, thus the psychological quandry. A good read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 9, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted July 16, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 14, 2010

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 12, 2011

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    Posted November 22, 2010

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 13, 2009

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