Thrillers are wonderfully escapist books to read.
Fuelled with adrenaline, powered by judiciously-placed reveals and always moving at something near to the speed of narrative light, they are a genre that is perfectly placed to take us on a wild journey that, happily in our famously loose end-addicted world where closure is often a dreamy myth, often comes with a nice, neat tidy ending.
They are, without a doubt, a great deal of vicarious fun to read, and you might wonder if there is any way to improve on a “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” model.
Sara Foster has a found a way and it is dazzlingly, enrapturingly good.
Her new novel The Hush (which finds its way to bookstores this coming Wednesday in Australia) injects the idea of the thriller with a pulsing, beating heart, an incisive sense of timely social commentary and a thoughtfulness about the state of the world that is not content to settle for trite, inactively realised, platitudes.
Centred on a near-future Britain, where COVID, climate change and myriad other issues have taken a ragged toll on the national psyche, The Hush surveys a world which is rapidly tilting towards authoritarianism as opportunistic leaders realise that a rattled populace seems to be mostly happy to trade away freedom for some illusion of security.
It’s a seductive idea that you can simply switch off the bad things in the world with a draconian law and an undemocratic edict there, and while there’s certainly a complicit section of the population happy to play along, it may not be as uniformly accepted as repressive leader wannabes think it is.
“She [Lainey] hurries out of class when the bell rings, before Davenport can ask her to stay behind for a chat. Head down, she’s out of the school and through the gates in less than a minute. On the way home she sends a message to her mum. Can’t take school anymore. No word from S. On my way there now.
The reply is almost instant. I’m coming. I’ll meet you there.
The relief is immense. She’s dreading what they might find, but at least she won’t be facing it alone.” (P. 155)
Even so, there is a certainly enough of an appetite by voters for someone high up to do something, anything, as increasing numbers of babies are being born who simply refuse to breathe at birth and die.
It’s a traumatic pandemic of still births that is gut wrenchingly horrifying for the parents, and alarming for the wider public who simply see yet another dark cloud on a horizon already full to bursting with them.
In a scared and worried UK then, it’s all too easy for the government to enact ever more restrictive laws, curtailing the rights of women particularly regarding their reproductive rights.
Against this backdrop, 17-year-old schoolgirl Lainey is struggling with the fact that her friend Ellis is missing, one of a growing number of pregnant teenage girls who have disappeared, often along with their parents, while her mother Emma, a midwife, is grappling with the growing emotional toll of parents leaving hospital empty handed and broken hearted.
It is terrifying enough for both of them, with front row seats to a society sliding perilously into authoritarian rule, to see this all happening but when Lainey herself gets in trouble, and Emma and her network of friends such as high-profile human rights lawyer Meena (mother of Lainey’s stalwart bestie Serena) have to rush to her aid, it suddenly becomes propulsively, nightmarishly real.
This is where The Hush, a nuanced novel that knows humanity counts for everything in these types of stories, really gets its thriller game on.
Much of the latter half of this engrossing book is devoted to fighting for Lainey and against the powers arrayed against her, and all of the UK really, who seek to impose a malevolent regime to their own nefarious, highly corruptive ends.
That alone makes for gripping, highly readable narrative.
Where The Hush goes that bit engagingly and thoughtfully further is when it infuses this pell-mell rush to the thriller finish line with a carefully-wrought, nuanced rumination on the state of the world and how it is up to individuals to fight back when they see their governments taken a far too dramatic step to undemocratic rule.
This is a thriller with a brain, a heart and a soul, never more on display that in the close knit relationship between Lainey and single Mum Emma who discover how much their mother-daughter really means when it is under palpable, towering threat and who come to understand the power of female friendship and kinship, especially when Emma reaches out to her well-connected estranged mother, Geraldine, a high-profile feminist who may be critically important to their success in taking the fight to the corrupted establishment which now threatens them.
They are not the only players of good and note in this brilliantly-told, highly-charged and intensely human story, but they are the three women around whom The Hush winningly revolves to powerful effect.
“So why is she so nervous? Is she just too paranoid?
The doubt lasts only seconds: long enough to recall the stings of needles in her arms, delivered without permission. The locked doors. The closed shutters. The weird, forced gaiety of everyone here.
Don’t get lulled into complacency. It’s Geraldine’s voice in her head. Observe. Make a plan. Make multiple plans. Stay on your toes.” (PP. 257-258)
It’s the raw humanity in the end that makes The Hush.
That’s not to say it’s not doing brilliantly well on all other counts because it is a fine, fantastically detailed and richly told thriller and a meaningfully compelling treatise on the brokenness of the world and its possible shot at regeneration if we all give a damn, but it is the relationship between Emma, Lainey and Geraldine which gives the novel so much of its driving need to be read.
You care deeply about these three people, all of whom in their own way are fighting back against the idea that you should be complicit in nascent tyranny, that the only way to cope with looming dictatorship is to keep your head down and hope no one notices you.
These three brave women, each in their own way, come to appreciate that they must take a stand, that they must do something, and that it’s simply not enough to sit by and watch the world go destructively south because while you may not be in the firing line now, there’s a very good chance you will be later and you can’t wait for that to happen.
It does happen, of course, we wouldn’t have a thrilling read if it hadn’t, and it’s reading about how ordinary people like Lainey and Emma in particular find a bravery and resourcefulness to fight for their own lives, for the rights and freedoms of friends and family, and for society as a whole, that makes The Hush such a powerfully engaging novel.
While you may initially think the ending comes far too suddenly, upon reflection it ends precisely when it should, both in terms of job done and emotional connection restored, a final high note in a novel full of them.
The Hush is one of those rare precious books that barely puts a foot wrong and which captures both the grinding sense that something is very wrong with the world, but thankfully also that hope is not futile and that you may be able to make real change happen even in the face of insurmountable odds.