Book Review: What Alice Knew by T.A. Cotterell

Title: What Alice Knew
Author: T. A. Cotterell
Publisher: Transworld Books
Publication Date:1 December 2016 –ePub ; 4 May 2017 – Paperback
Twitter: @TACotterell1
Rating: 4 stars
How far would you go to keep a secret?
Alice has a perfect life – a great job, happy kids, a wonderful husband. Until he goes missing one night; she receives a suspicious phone call; things don’t quite add up.
Alice needs to know what’s going on. But when she uncovers the truth she faces a brutal choice. And how can she be sure it is the truth?
Sometimes it’s better not to know.

Thank you to Becky Hunter at Transworld Books (Penguin Random House) for providing me with a copy of What Alice Knew for review.
What Alice Knew is the debut novel from T A Cotterell. The story focuses on artist, Alice Sheahan, and her doctor husband Ed. They appear to be the perfect couple with a perfect life until Alice’s husband becomes a suspect in a criminal investigation, leaving Alice wondering how well she knows her husband and where the truth lies.
The reader is told of the crime early on in the tale and this leaves the reader to question the motives and actions of the characters in every chapter, particularly given the unreliability of the narration.
The two main characters, Alice and Ed, are well-constructed and are very different personalities. Ed is the steady, hard-working husband and father. A well-educated man in a very good job enabling him to provide for his family. To me, however, he seemed a bit too perfect and slightly cold. In contrast, Alice appears to have a more artistic temperament, emotional, unable to work unless in the right mood and absorbed by her own thoughts.
My one criticism would be that the two main characters left me feeling slightly cold. I could not relate to either Alice or Ed and, as such, I found it difficult to sympathise with Alice. I think that I became too absorbed in Alice’s internal dialogue and how she virtually loses all sense of herself as she struggles with the decisions she has made. This ultimately left me wanting to take her by the shoulders, give her a good shake and advise her to “man up!”. It does, however, serve as a perfect example of how women can at times continue over-analyse their decisions, even after making them. From experience, men tend to see things in a more black-and-white way and, once a decision is made, do not seem to have the same destructive need to continue analysing that decision. I am, of course, being completely stereotypical here (!!) and I’m sure this is often not the case. In Alice’s case, it is the guilt that she simply cannot push aside, despite that being the best thing for her family. This is an interesting ethical dilemma – doing the right thing is not always best for the parties involved, nor the easiest choice. In those circumstances, should we still feel bad about choosing another path…?
The writing style is eloquent and thought-provoking, leaving the reader to ask numerous questions of themselves as the tale progresses. One sentence in the book struck me – “Sanity is the capacity to edit”. I spent some time considering what this means.
The author is either already knowledgeable about art or has done their homework, and these references helped to set the scene in relation to Alice’s character. She really feels that her portraits show the truth about a person and she does, at times, find this to be a bit of a conflict when undertaking certain commissions. I liked the parallels drawn between Alice’s need for truth as an artist and her struggles in relation to the truth surrounding her husband – is it always necessary to see the truth, particularly when the truth causes pain?
The story is certainly full of scheming and the plot twists are well-thought-out and skilfully executed by the author. Most of us will be familiar with the famous quote from Sir Walter Scott “Oh! What a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive”. This certainly rings true in this case. There is a very particular risk to telling lies, especially when we do not have the full and truthful acts. By weaving that web of deceit, one must remember all aspects of the main lie and all layers/outcomes this could affect. It is all too easy to be caught out in a lie.
What Alice Knew asks the reader to consider how far they would go to protect someone they love. Would you lie to the police? Would you turn them in? Is it really true that, sometimes, it is better not to know? What Alice Knewcertainly left me with something to think. How far would I go to protect my husband? Would this differ if I believed him to be innocent or guilty? It’s a question that none of us can really answer unless we find ourselves in that position.
I did enjoy What Alice Knew and I can appreciate why it has received such glowing reviews. It is a well-executed, intriguing and thought-provoking debut novel from Cotterell and I expect more good things to come.
About the Author
T. A. Cotterell read History of Art at Cambridge University. He was a freelance writer and now writes and edits for the research house Redburn. He is married with three children and lives in Bristol.

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