by Louise Jensen
Lisa’s words are imprinted on Kat’s mind : ‘We always get what we deserve.’ But do we? Do the not so nice things we do sometimes come back and bite us in another form? Whilst not precisely a theme of The Surrogate, there is a hint throughout the story that Kat, the main protagonist and narrator, believes that they do. She is haunted by the possibility that her present situation arose because of her actions in the past.
‘I don’t quite know how but I know that I’m going to get a baby if it kills me.’
At the start of the novel, Kat and Nick have what seems a happy marriage, blighted only by her inability to get pregnant, and by the failure of their attempts to adopt a foreign baby. Then Lisa, whom she hasn’t seen for more than ten years, comes back into Kat’s life. They have fallen out in the past, though at this stage we have no idea why.
However, when Lisa offers to be a surrogate mother, Kat jumps at the chance, and Nick goes along. As in her first two novels, The Sister and The Gift, Louise Jensen works here in two timelines. As a result, as the story progresses, we are treated to glimpses of the past. We see the girls as teenagers, in the final days of high school, with all the urges and temptations that go along with those exciting and (often) scary times. We understand too the (often) counter-pressures of upbringing and home life.
‘I peer inside the car. There is a brick in the passenger seat. Someone has done this deliberately. There’s a clattering sound behind me, and I gasp and spin round ….’
As Lisa’s pregnancy progresses, Kat’s happiness and delight at the prospect of holding her husband’s baby – even if not her own biologically – gradually turns to suspicion: suspicion of Nick, that he’s having an affair; suspicion of her neighbour Clare, and of Clare’s pretty daughter Ava; suspicion of other people in her life, and even of Lisa. As Kat begins to dwell again on those words, we begin to understand the reasons for her own guilt. Unscheduled absences; isolated text messages, missing money, a wreath on her doorstep, shadows in the darkness, and Kat invents her own explanation. But which of these are actually real, and which are false?
Gripped by the first few paragraphs: ‘… You don’t expect anything bad… Not here. This is a nice area… ‘ we do expect something bad to happen. Thus tension in The Surrogate is high throughout, because there are so many possible explanations for the characters’ conduct, even for Kat’s. After all, she might be paranoid; Lisa might not be pregnant at all; footsteps in the garden might be those of an axe murderer … and so on. The nature of psychological thrillers is to keep the reader guessing and Jensen does this once again.
Although there are clues -and I did begin to work SOME of it out – the final resolution came as a complete surprise. The ‘Now and Then’ approach doesn’t always work in fiction but here it does, and Louise Jensen handles it well. The formula asks all the right questions and provides a great deal of the suspense.
‘The handle to the locker was pressing hard against my spine …. the feel of [spoiler] hands squeezing my throat fading away.’
The book’s cover describes The Surrogate in hyperbolic fashion as ‘a gripping psychological thriller with an incredible twist’. In truth, the novel contains so many twists that one might expect – those who are old enough to remember – the shade of Chubby Checker to pop out of the rear cover. But they are good twists, and that flippant comment is no reflection on what is a clever plot, well-handled, and a sensitive exploration of some of the important issues of the age. The main theme of surrogacy, already controversial in the minds of some people, takes on an almost creepy feel here, whilst others like teenage angst, drugs and domestic violence are not forgotten.
The Surrogate is a powerful novel of love, lust and expectation, perhaps a shade melodramatic in places, yet always absorbing. I really had to keep turning the pages for the next twist.