She loves me. She loves me not.
Bo Luxton has it all – a loving family, a beautiful home in the Lake District, and a clutch of bestselling books to her name.
Enter Alice Dark, an aspiring writer who is drifting through life, with a series of dead-end jobs and a freeloading boyfriend.
When they meet at a writers’ retreat, the chemistry is instant, and a sinister relationship develops…
Or does it?
Breathlessly pacey, taut and terrifying, Exquisite is a startlingly original and unbalancing psychological thriller that will keep you guessing until the very last page.
‘The characters are so untrustworthy you wont know what to believe, but you won’t put it down till you’ve found out. A superb debut’ Sunday Mirror
'Cunningly constructed and gorgeously written, this is outstanding’ Express
'It’s a remarkable debut in the crowded psychological thriller field, written with great sureness of touch and tone' Times Crime Club
‘Slickly claustrophobic, this arch story of obsessive, forbidden love taken to the extreme will have you squirming in your seat’ Sarah Pinsborough
‘Whip-smart, lushly written and truly page-turning … Sarah Stovell is a thrilling talent’ Holly Seddon
‘A moving, gripping story … twists keep coming till the very last page. I loved it’ Erin Kelly
‘Addictive, terrifying and beautifully written, Exquisite is up there with the best psychological thrillers I’ve ever read. Fucking awesome’ Chris Whittaker
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About the Author
Sarah Stovell was born in 1977 and spent most of her life in the Home Counties before a season working in a remote North Yorkshire youth hostel made her realise she was a northerner at heart. She now lives in Northumberland with her partner and two children and is a lecturer in Creative Writing at Lincoln University. Her debut psychological thriller, Exquisite, is set in the Lake District.
Follow Sarah on Twitter: @sarahlovescrime
Read an Excerpt
By Sarah Stovell
Orenda BooksCopyright © 2017 Sarah Stovell
All rights reserved.
In the mountains, daylight still falled. The frost raged and wind rang like steel through the ice. It was winter up there, but the gentle beat of spring ripened the valley below. Light fell on the church and stone cottages; it greened the trees and warmed the silent lake. Two seasons always claimed this far-flung nook of earth.
It was my favourite time of day – the trek back through the fells after dropping my girls at school. Our home stood two miles outside the village, but from the moment we moved here I was insistent the girls walk to school, whatever the weather. That was the purpose of a Lake District childhood, to my mind: to know the slow movement of the seasons; to breathe beneath clean skies and hear the ice-cold motion of a stream; to run wild until the landscape wore their shoes out.
I thought they'd fight me harder than they did. In Oxford, they'd refused to walk anywhere. Maggie, especially, complained of the cold, the ice, the dark; the cars that passed too quickly through the rainy streets and shocked her legs with spray. But here, walking became something new and exciting. It had been September when we moved, two years ago now, in time for the new school year. The girls had watched with awe as summer's green faded and the burnished light of autumn emerged in the foliage. They liked running out in the morning mist, watching it dissolve to reveal the ochre flush of the fells. They filled their pockets with conkers and fir cones, took them home, scattered them over their bedroom floors, said they were making a bed for the hedgehog they planned to adopt over winter.
I watched them, deeply satisfied. I'd long held a theory – Gus scoffed at the hippiness of it, but so what? – that humans were homesick for the outdoors. This strange urge to shut themselves away from the elements, locked up in houses, cars, offices, thinking they were protected from the wind and the rain and the cancerous sun ... it was rotting their very hearts, making them sick. They didn't know the cure was simple: Get outside. Walk. Breathe. Live.
Moving here had been good for everyone, though we'd done it mainly because of my work. At the time, I was researching the murky lives of the women surrounding the Romantic Poets – the women who'd willingly tended to sensational but sick men who had abandoned domestic life and hurt themselves with sonnets.
'I need to be in Grasmere to do this,' I'd told Gus.
He suggested a holiday, but I needed more than that. 'A year at least,' I said. 'Maybe two.'
'We can't uproot the girls for a year or two. If we need to move, we move forever, or not at all.'
It was exactly the response I'd wanted. I'd mastered this particular skill over the years: sowing the seed of half my desire, then letting him grab and plant the rest. That way, he'd always think of it as a joint decision; or, better still, his own idea.
Gus was already retired when we moved. There were twenty-two years between us and he was ready, I thought, and he agreed, for a more peaceful life. A secluded world away from the fog of the city, the grey sky that fell into the dull Thames, the shoppers and the crowds.
'There'll be crowds in the Lake District,' he said. 'You can't get away from the tourists. Even in January, they'll be there.'
What he said was only partly true. Tourists always filled the valleys. They hung around the lakes and towns, took their children to Peter Rabbit World, rowed across Windermere and ate cream teas in lakeside gardens. They paid a duty call to Dove Cottage, and came away reminded of why they'd hated Wordsworth at school. But few of them really left the vales. They didn't see Helvellyn silenced bysnow, or the high mountain tarns lying dark beneath the rocky edges of the fells. For most of the year, our home stood unseen.
I rounded a curve in the mountain path and the cottage came into view: limewashed walls, slate roof and a rose trellis, the branches knocking against the lattice in the breeze – so different from the four-storey town house we'd owned in Oxford.
The door was unlocked. I opened it and stepped into the old, quarry-brick hall that took me through to the kitchen. Gus sat in the rocking chair by the woodburner, reading the Westmorland Gazette: all the news about stolen sheep, a campaign to save the post office and the decision to close a crumbling footpath in Buttermere. He took no notice of the national news these days. He said the only way to survive what was going on in the world – climate change, a refugee crisis, the Tory reign of terror – was to live in ignorance of it. He never used to be like this. There was a time when he'd read a paper every day on his commute to Paddington, watch the evening news at seven and again at ten, always making sure his opinions were informed. But his mind seemed empty now. It left too much space for dangerous, depressive pondering, and I had to take care around him.
He didn't look up as I walked in. Somehow, over the years, our everyday language had slipped away. We didn't bother anymore with 'Hello' or 'How was your day?' We'd become like furniture to each other: necessary for an easy life, but really just part of our surroundings – noticed only if visitors arrived.
I didn't mind this; not really. There was something hugely comfortable about the way we lived – free to do our own thing, but bound together by companionship, by a life we'd shared for so long now, we could each hardly imagine the house without the other. Besides, I didn't have enough leftover energy to mind. The girls were what mattered. Their needs were huge. I'd always been aware, even when they were tiny and single nights had gone on forever, that this time was fleeting. So I'd put everything I had into it. And although I craved more time for my work – a day, just one day! – I knew, always, that nothing would ever be this important again. There would never be anything in my future more meaningful than the care of my children – the two girls who wore out the very marrow in my bones and pushed me to the limits of my well-being, but made everything wonderful.
I spooned coffee into the espresso maker and set it on the stove to heat, then whipped milk in the Aeroccino. (I'd had to stop using those coloured capsules when Gus went through his environmental crisis. I pointed out that they were recyclable, but he said that was most likely nonsense invented by Nestlé, and that we were just wasting more miles having them transported back to the factory to be tossed into landfill. My husband's principles were admirable, but they did make him hard work to live with at times.)
The smell of brewing coffee rose and mingled with the smell from the bread machine; even though I knew I was at risk of becoming a bourgeois stereotype, I loved it. I wanted this to be the defining smell of my house: warm and comforting, a home people would always be happy to come back to.
I carried the coffee to my study – a small room off the kitchen that had once, a hundred years ago, or so, been the common parlour – and sat at my desk. It was covered in piles: a pile of pages from my manuscript; a pile of books about Samuel Taylor Coleridge's women; and a pile of submissions from aspiring authors who wanted me to offer them a place on the course I was running the following month. My heart sagged as I looked at them. I had to select six from more than a hundred. All of them needed sifting into piles: definitely not; maybe; definitely yes. The definitely not pile was always disheartening – always so much bigger than the definitely yes pile. But in that yes pile might be the stirrings of something, some raw talent for me to grab hold of and grow. I longed to discover a voice of the future.
I read four – three definitely no and one maybe – before the phone interrupted me. It was my biggest failing, this inability to ignore the ringing of the landline or the incoming ping of an email or Facebook alert. It robbed me of so much time. I probably lost two books a decade to frivolous chatting.
It was my mother. Her tone today was injured: she hadn't heard from me for months; she was seventy-five years old; she needed help with her shopping; she'd gone eight days without talking to another human being, and even then it had only been the postman, who made it clear he couldn't wait to get away; she was feeling ill; she was lonely; she was afraid at night, here in her wagon, where anyone could get in; she was feeling, truth be told, abandoned ever since I'd taken the children and moved to the far north of the country.
I tuned her out. I knew my friends had similar problems with their parents. Old age, they said; people became difficult in old age. But my mother had always been like this – demanding that everyone make her their sun, putting her at the centre of their lives, rotating around her, letting her shine but having no vital light of their own. If they didn't do this, it meant they didn't love her enough.
Eventually, I said, 'We'll be down in the summer.'
But my mother went on. I tuned her out again, holding the phone slightly away from my ear. I'd done a good job so far, I reminded myself, of not being like her; of not passing down to my own children this awful, hereditary madness. I was good. I was putting it all right.
The phone call ended. I hadn't been prepared for it, and for a while I sat exhausted, resting my forehead in my hands. There was no flare of the old anger, though; that was long gone. But I couldn't entirely escape the guilt about how I really felt: My aging mother was upset, and I, frankly, did not give a shit.
I returned to the pile of submissions on my desk. They were the usual, predictable stories about car crashes, murders, drugs raids and homosexuals coming out before they were ready and then killing themselves. I hadn't known the world had room in it for this much crap.
But then, there was one. Last Words. It was arresting. I read it to the end.
The Japanese always burn their dead. Afterwards, the bones are taken out of the furnace and the entire family gathers round and picks them up with chopsticks. They put the bone of their choice into a jar, take it home with them and bury it. It seems a strangely sinister ritual to me. I think it's the chopsticks that do it. They make the whole thing hover a bit too close to cannibalism for my liking. I imagine myself having to gather up my mother's bones with a knife and fork. The idea makes me want to vomit, though I'm sure she herself would relish all the latent symbolism in the image. I have, after all, been wantonly drinking her blood since the day I was born.
My mother is dying. She has cancer, of course, and no will to live. I haven't seen her since I was sixteen and she went off and married Husband Four (the psychopath), leaving me on my own with Husband Three (the drunk) and the occasional weekend visit to Husband One (the father). Husband Two (the good one) died in a car accident when I was six.
My family is the stuff of tragedy, or it would be if the lack of noble emotion hadn't reduced us all to the level of soap opera. Divorce is the family sport. My mother is current champion, though this, like all records, could change at any moment.
It won't be me who inherits her title, though. I don't go near anyone.
* * *
I've always been hiding from my mother. Early on, I learnt how to make myself invisible. I kept quiet and endured her. Her fist in my face was just ice.
All in all, it was good when she left. She was gone, and I was free to stop hoping that from beneath the violence would spring the fairy tale, dressed in floral skirts and smelling of fabric softener. They all said she'd regret it. I used to picture her as the years rocked by: alone in her big house, weeping tears of blood.
Three years ago, I found her on Facebook. Emma Butterworth. Still his surname, but that didn't mean it had lasted. I clicked on her every week, without becoming her friend, and knew from a distance whenever she changed her profile picture. I scrolled through her list of friends for anyone I remembered. There was no one. My mother did not hold on to people.
Once, her profile picture changed to one of me and her when I was a baby. She was gazing at me with a devotion not seen since the Nativity. 'I miss her' she'd written. Below it, a few comments: 'Sorry you're having a bad day, Emma.' 'Be kind to yourself.' 'Let go of guilt.' 'You did your best.'
A support group, full of supporters. I didn't click on her again but I didn't block her, either.
And that's how they found me. A message appeared in my inbox from a woman called Liz Elegant: 'Dear Alice. Your mother has asked me to get in touch with you. I know it has been a long time since you two had any contact, but Emma is in hospital and approaching the end of her life. Please get in touch if you would like the hospital address.'
I left it three days then sent a message.
* * *
Now I'm here, in the waiting area. There's a window that looks over the road to the park. Families, small and intact, hang around the swings in the sun. I glance out at them, then away. In all my old dreams of family, I didn't know how hard it would be: the uphill slog to domestic fulfilment. I used to think it would happen simply because I deserved it. I'd had my fill, my spill, my broken homes, my bag on my back and nowhere to go. Someone would hand me a future. A golden apple, wet with love.
Instead, I lay down on the floor for them. I unwrapped my skin and let them dance on my flesh with hobnailed boots. Pints of my blood still keep them strong.
I know now. The world has no need for more of my genes.
The door to her room has been closed since I got here. I've had no reason to wait. I've just been getting ready.
I cross the corridor, knock lightly and go in.
'Emma,' I say, and I do not flinch at the sight of her, beaten on the bed.
Slowly, she turns her head. She looks at me for a long time. I take the seat beside her.
'Alice,' she says.
I say nothing.
She reaches for my hand. I let her clasp it in the bones of her own.
Her voice is a whisper, hard as sandpaper. 'Thank you.'
I am silent.
'Put it right,' she says, and her grip tightens on my hand. 'Forgive me now, and put it right.'
A golden apple, wet with love. I take my hand away. Sweat glints on my palm, like poison.
* * *
I put the pages down. This was autobiography, clearly – something I usually had no time for, but I could forgive this one. Its author must still be floundering in youth, hadn't yet found a theme bigger than her mother that she could harness. And she was in pain, too. Oh, the words were brutal, the language sharply controlled, but I caught the vulnerability beneath: the longing; that endless, endless longing for the elusive love of the mother.
I fired up my laptop and typed an email to the centre administrator of the country house where the course was being held.
Subject: Students selected for Advanced Fiction, taught by Bo Luxton.
I typed the first name, then highlighted it and put it in bold, to indicate that I thought the student worthy of financial assistance.
Alice Dark.CHAPTER 2
I rose to the surface of sleep. Before I'd even opened my eyes, I was aware of that old slump of my brain, my charred throat, the pain. I glanced at the clock. 12:36 pm. Another day moving on without me.
Next to me, Jake slept on, the unwashed lump of him taking up too much space on the mattress. That mattress was a symbol of all our failures, I thought. We weren't even mature enough to sleep more than six inches off the floor. What hope was there for either of us ever forging a path through the brutal world of the arts?
I stood up, manoeuvring through scattered ashtrays, pouches of tobacco and last night's empty lager bottles to the shower room. I could hear the sounds of Chris and his girlfriend shagging in the room next door. God, no one in this house had a job. They moved through time as if it were endless, their days not numbered. All anyone did was sleep, smoke, drink, fuck and talk about how great they would be one day.
But this was what had attracted me to Jake in the first place: his brazen rejection of mainstream life; his refusal to conform. He'd told me when we met that he was a painter. It was his only passion; he couldn't bear to do anything else. And he'd found a way to make a living from it – hauling his triptychs of colourful, geometric patterns down to the Lanes every Saturday and waiting for young professionals from London to come and buy them. That's what Brighton was to these people: a place where you bought original artwork from unknown, impoverished painters standing on street corners. One day, when the artist won the Turner Prize, this early work would be rare and valuable, and dinner guests would envy the purchaser their gift for spotting genuine, embryonic talent.
In reality, that was all horseshit, and Jake knew it. His marketable work was rubbish. He knocked it out over a couple of hours on a Friday night, in between roll-ups and glugs of Special Brew, and I would have to listen to him lamenting the poor taste of a public who hung this crap in their homes, while the other stuff – the real stuff; the good stuff that he laboured over – went unnoticed.
Excerpted from Exquisite by Sarah Stovell. Copyright © 2017 Sarah Stovell. Excerpted by permission of Orenda Books.
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.
Table of Contents
Her Majesty's Prison for Women Yorkshire,
Part One: Meeting,
Her Majesty's Prison for Women Yorkshire,
Part Two: Loving - Alice,
Her Majesty's Prison for Women Yorkshire,
Part Three: Denying - Bo,
Her Majesty's Prison for Women Yorkshire,
Part Four: Wreckage,
Her Majesty's Prison for Women Yorkshire,
Part Five: Justice,
Part Six: Renewal,
About the Author,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
“Exquisite” by name “Exquisite” by nature! I found this brilliant book to be utterly outstanding and so aptly named! I LOVED this compelling, addictive and totally gripping story and although I try not to use the word ‘unputdownable’, for me it truly was. This dark story of obsessive and warped love is told from the alternating point of view of the two main female characters, Alice Dark, a twenty five year old aspiring writer and Bo Luxton, a forty year old and married established author who befriends Alice at a writing course she is teaching at. In between these points of views we hear the thoughts from a prisoner in a women’s prison - we don’t know which one of the women it is and it isn’t revealed until the end of the story who is actually expressing their innermost feelings and why they are there. Watching Alice and Bo’s relationship develop really was thrilling and the suggestion that trouble was brewing and along with not knowing who to trust and who to believe, only added to the smouldering tension and suspense. I also enjoyed the way the women's emails were used to help tell the story. Both characters were dangerous, devious and typical of the saying ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’ - it’s very difficult to side with either woman and with a couple of twists and turns along the way this book was the ideal psychological thriller to keep you glued to the pages. A perfect balance between character development and plot line, beautifully told with some fabulous narrative, an idyllic atmospheric setting of the Lake District fells and valleys and with an excellent suspenseful storyline, “Exquisite” written by Sarah Stovell is a fantastically written book that I most highly recommend. You have got to read this if you can. I could quite easily revisit this story again and I would be very interested to see if the story could develop further still. Easily five stars and then some.
I don’t even know where to begin with this review because I want to tell you everything. But I also want to tell you nothing. Going into the reading of this book with minimal knowledge of the plot is going to make it that much more exciting for you. Trust me on this one. It’s a story filled with obsession and naïveté, and unreliable narrators. It’s going to keep you up way past your bedtime. And it’s going to mess with your mind. That’s it. I refuse to say any more. Get yourself a copy of this book as soon as you possibly can, and carve some time out of your schedule to sit down and read it. Because it’s going to consume you.
This novel was very well written and kept you in suspense. At the beginning, it appeared Alice was likely the one in the women's prison. The role reversal occurred slowly and then the reader could see the "real" Bo Lurton. The characters in a lesbian relationship were genuinely sympathetic exhibiting normal emotions that carried out well. In the end even stodgy Gus came through with character! Loved the book and will recommend it to my friends. JMY Montana
Psychological thriller about problematic love This novel deals with two women: a 40-year old successful author, living in the Lake District with her husband and two children, enters into a mentoring and then a more personal relationship with a young troubled young lady who is struggling with life. The relationship leads to a court case (without giving too much away) as both women develop in different ways. The novel is quite engaging and is certainly well-written but, although I enjoyed it at a certain level, I would say that, as a 63-year old male, I am not the target readership here. Without sounding sexist (I hope), this would suit a female readership and/or a book group. I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
But if you have something against lesbian relationships then this book is not for you.