The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell Book Review
Title: The Family Upstairs
Author: Lisa Jewell
Rating: ★★★★★ (5/5)
Description: Soon after her twenty-fifth birthday, Libby Jones returns home from work to find the letter she’s been waiting for her entire life. She rips it open with one driving thought: I am finally going to know who I am.
She soon learns not only the identity of her birth parents, but also that she is the sole inheritor of their abandoned mansion on the banks of the Thames in London’s fashionable Chelsea neighborhood, worth millions. Everything in Libby’s life is about to change. But what she can’t possibly know is that others have been waiting for this day as well—and she is on a collision course to meet them.
Twenty-five years ago, police were called to 16 Cheyne Walk with reports of a baby crying. When they arrived, they found a healthy ten-month-old happily cooing in her crib in the bedroom. Downstairs in the kitchen lay three dead bodies, all dressed in black, next to a hastily scrawled note. And the four other children reported to live at Cheyne Walk were gone.
The can’t-look-away story of three entangled families living in a house with the darkest of secrets
Disclaimer: This blog post will contain affiliate and referral links. I may earn a small commission to feed my book hoarding tendencies if you use these links to make a purchase. This in no way impacts my opinions of the books listed - they are all my own.
(Trigger Warnings:Cults, Murder, Abuse, Suicide, Sexual Harassment, Sexual Assault, Drug Use, Poisoning, Pedophilia)
The Family Upstairs is an adult mystery novel by Lisa Jewell. The book tells the story of a woman named Libby trying to find information about her biological family after being adopted very early in her life. She receives more than she ever could have expected by landing herself in a decades-old unsolved mystery. It's an amateur detective novel with dark and grizzly clues at its finest. It cycles between multiple points of view that span from the past to the present to show the complete sequence of events that have and will happen.
The mystery doesn't feel like a generic one copied from countless others. It is its own unique tale and is just as confounding as one would expect. The reader can never quite grasp the circumstances surrounding the mystery. It alludes them on the edges of their consciousness. Tiny details begin to align but it seems impossible to see the bigger picture - a perfectly accomplished feat of an acclaimed mystery novel.
The entrance prologue is sprinkled with the perfect mix of spine chilling alarm and unresolved mystery. It automatically sets the reader on a path riddled with endless questions. The normality of the opening scene and established routine contrast with the stark ominous presence hanging over the book from the first line. The author sets up an almost boring existence to be crushed by the weight of the story unfolding.
A layout of alternating points of view, which shift each chapter, keeps the reader on their toes. The book is written so the perspectives are constantly shifting which prevents repetition and monotony. Expertly woven points of view show the mystery through unique angles that only deepen the intrigue.
Lisa Jewell ties together distinctly different characters into a grander scale story. From every character perspective, you can feel the raw and untethered reality of their plight. The use of first person in the past and third person in the presents lends itself to the relationship the reader has with each section.
The story starts in the present from the point of view of Libby who I would consider to be the main character even if the point of view's are split pretty evenly. She is an adopted daughter looking into her birth family and their circumstances. What she uncovers is more than she bargained for with a suspected suicide pact, missing children, and her young self left behind on her own in infancy. It is as enrapturing as it is eery to both the reader and Libby.
Libby is a likable narrator, something you don't always find in this genre. Her entire existence hinges on a devastation of the past - a past has horrifying as it is mesmerizing. She adds a personable aspect to the surroundings of her early life and a semblance of normalcy to the twist-filled mystery.
The point of view of the brother of Libby, Henry, set shortly before the tragedy that is at the center of the book, is incredibly absorbing. You read from Henry's POV and can immediately tell it's odd. He is a strange person and the curious circumstances surrounding him add to that. Henry in particular shows incredibly obsessive and repressed tendencies. We later see the point of view of his grown sister but he remains an anomaly throughout. His narration is oftentimes untrustworthy and impossible to accept at face value. His perspective is the perfect demonstration of an unreliable narrator in a confessions style format
From Henry's point of view, you can see the tragedy of the past linked to the present through the eyes of a young but calculating mind. The cult slowly encapsulates the entirety of the past. It expands to consume everything in its wake. You can slowly see the events spiraling down into an avalanche of what will lead to the present-day. As an outsider, it is easy to see the gradual progression of horror but it isn't as clear to the characters at the time.
Lucy's character is the halfway point between past and present. She ties an unseen thread to connect the two. She is the middle ground between Henry and Libby - who live such oh-so different lives. Her life is difficult and secretive, a charming mixture in the story, which is part of her ability to bridge the gap between the two timelines.
Characters are remarkably well-written and believable even in the most peculiar parts. Each character is undeniably real in their mistakes and regrets. The author is a master at joining multiple journeys in multiple time periods effortlessly. The narrative perfectly captures emotions of troubled youth, extremism at its finest, and burgeoning life.
The cast of characters from the time of the incident including Phin, Henry, David, and Birdie along with the present day line of characters Libby, Miller, and Dido all define the era they come from. The story is non-existent without their strong personalities. For example, David is an ominous man leading the cult-like community. He is narcissistic and self-important but also cruel and abusive. It creates the perfect storm for the tragedy to come.
Tensions rise like the waves of the ocean. When you think you have a grasp on the happenings a riptide pulls you under. The most minuscule of tension-filled moments accelerates the reader's heartbeat as though they're living them too. The past is painted in a wistfully, dark tense.
The writing is matter of fact and direct in the way of most mystery novels. Lisa Jewell manages to bypass all the unnecessary chatter and make every word count. Her writing style is blunt to pack a punch in every scene. Even the smallest of gestures have deep and undeniable meaning. The smallest of traits paints an entirely vivid picture of the scenes and characters.
Once you reach a point where you no longer believe anything can shock you, another surprise awaits you. Lisa Jewell places revelations in the most damning of places - all the better in my opinion. The narrative only grows stranger the further you dive into it. Every chapter unveils a new cog in the overall scheme of the tragic mystery. Block after block of information builds into a tall standing tower. The book, with all its revelations and exposed secrets, is very open-ended and ambiguous possibly leaving room for a sequel.
I found The Family Upstairs to be a great mystery novel right out of the gate. It was puzzling and sinister in equal measure. While I loved it, the book may not be a read for everyone. The content of the book can be extremely triggering at times. I advise any reader to look through the list of triggers I provided at the top of this review for their own benefit. If you have any questions about them feel free to comment below or message me on my Instagram.
If you're interested in this title or others be sure to check out Book Depository .
Follow My Bookish Adventures: