The Perfect Life by Nuala Ellwood: An emotional, chilling and utterly unpredictable rollercoaster ride - book review -

After the trauma of her mother’s death when she was only ten, Nessa Adams has been desperate to find the perfect home and the perfect life.

Thursday, 12th August 2021, 4:55 am
The Perfect Life
The Perfect Life

So when real life gets tough, she adopts a false name and different persona and takes tours of the kind of luxury homes she could never afford to buy… until a man who lives in one of these houses is murdered and all the evidence points to Nessa.

Nuala Ellwood – who was chosen as one of The Observer’s New Faces of Fiction 2017 for her brilliant debut novel My Sister’s Bones, and has followed up that success with stunning thrillers Day of the Accident and The House on the Lake – returns with a dark, disturbing page-turner tingling with psychological tension and jaw-dropping plot twists.

The Perfect Life takes readers on an emotional, chilling and utterly unpredictable rollercoaster ride through the past and present as a web of secrets, lies, and startling truths spin out like an unstoppable coiled spring.

Using her storytelling artistry, her gift for creating complex, compelling characters, and a tempo that accelerates with each chapter and each mind-blowing revelation, Ellwood lures her readers into the mind of a young woman discovering that her idea of a dream life might just be a perfect nightmare.

Despite landing herself a good job as marketing manager for a London cosmetics company, and secure in the unwavering love and care of her older, reliable sister Georgie, Nessa has never fully recovered from the sudden death of her beloved mother from a brain haemorrhage over twenty years ago.

Naturally shy and introspective, Nessa has also found comfort in her close friendship with Lottie, the university friend with whom she now shares a London apartment. Lottie is the ‘light’ to Nessa’s ‘darkness’… they ‘balance each other out’ and are like a married couple ‘without the boring relationship complications.’

But then Nessa meets handsome, charming Connor Dawkins, an art director for a PR company, who makes her feel like she can be ‘completely myself’ and whose magnetic attraction is ‘like some strange and powerful drug.’

Two years later, Nessa is living with Connor but life isn’t turning out be the perfect existence she had longed for so she is indulging herself by pretending to be somebody different, somebody better.

And it’s so easy… all she has to do is throw on some smart clothes, adopt a new accent and convince estate agents that she is a bona fide buyer looking for that perfect luxury home in the most expensive areas of the city.

Nessa knows she’s looking round houses she could never afford but she views it as just a ‘harmless curiosity,’ until the day she visits Holly Maze House, home to Geoffrey Rivers, a famous writer who was a favourite of her mother.

Rivers was murdered in his house that same day and Nessa was the last person to see him alive. She was caught on CCTV running away from the house ‘in a state of agitation and distress’ and the police have arrested her as a prime suspect.

Can she prove her innocence… or is Nessa’s ‘harmless’ fun more menacing than anyone had imagined?

Ellwood’s enthralling and serpentine story is as unsettling as it is powerful, and there will be few readers who are not left reeling by that final, devilishly clever twist in the tail. But it is the compulsive journey to the truth as well as the satisfying dénouement that makes The Perfect Life so exciting.

Few characters are who or what they seem to be as we weave between past and present to discover the legacies and events that have informed the way that Nessa sees the world, and the different emotional mechanisms she employs to cope with loss, grief and disappointment.

Obsession, coercion, manipulation, deceit and downright cruelty all play a part as Ellwood constantly toys with our perception of reality and fantasy, and with plot and pacing perfectly harnessed, this is a story that grips until the last page has turned.

(Penguin, paperback, £7.99)