Anna Downes’ debut novel The Safe Place was inspired by her experiences working on a remote French Estate. And the feel of that estate comes through strongly in the opening framing of the book. Emily Proudman is whisked away by private plane to the South of France and then taken by a silent driver to a massive, remote coastal estate called Querencia. Clearly this is not Emily’s milieu and from the start it seems that something is a little off. But what that something is takes quite a while to get to.
The story then rewinds to Emily’s disastrous life. She is an aspiring actress who cannot land a role and when the book opens is also being fired by the firm where she is temping and being evicted from her flat. She is already on the outs with her adoptive parents partly because she craves more than their small British village life, but at the same time is always coming to them for money. So when her ex-boss Scott runs into her, apologises for her sacking and then offers her a job as a housekeeper and companion for his wife and daughter in France she really has little choice. But of course Scott knows this. Scott’s story is also being told in parallel, including the way he has manipulated Emily into a position where she has to say yes to his proposal. There is something decidedly creepy about Scott (including the occasional act of self-harm) but nothing more than that is revealed until much later in the book.
Upon arrival in France, Emily meets Scott’s wife Nina and their silent, reclusive daughter Aurelia. From the beginning she knows something is not right. There are plenty of rules, including not allowing her into the family home (she has a guest house of her own), and a strange damp smell that permeates the paradise that might be more than just mouldering buildings that need some TLC. All of this keeps the reader slightly on edge until finally (they take a long time coming), secrets are revealed and some (limited) hell breaks loose.
The Safe Place is effective if languorously paced. It takes a long time for anything to happen, so that the bulk of the middle of the book just feels like Emily’s adventures in paradise. The revelations when they do come are not particularly surprising, partly because they have been seeded in the narrative but partly because they are par for the course for this type of domestic thriller. And there are plenty of creepy elements here that are thrown in for atmosphere but not really explained or used particularly well. All in all, though, this is a reasonable diversion for those looking for a sunny, but slightly twisted, escape to the South of France.