Out of a Clear Sky

out-of-a-clear-skyAs this novel by Sally Hinchcliffe begins, the narrator, Manda, an avid bird-watcher, is watching a pair of ravens.

These two were displaying their huge wingspan—well over a metre—as they spread and hopped awkwardly around the prone body on the ledge. Easily bigger than a rook or crow. I couldn’t see from my vantage point at the top of the corrie whether they had taken out the eyes yet with their heavy beaks. Probably. Those, and the soft belly, are where the carrion eaters attack first, if they are left a find like this by the predators. Fleece and Gore-Tex had protected the belly in this case but the eyes—the eyes are another matter. Fleece and Gore-Tex would probably long outlast the body, but what else would eat it there, caught on the ledge, if the ravens didn’t?

The body, we quickly learn, is that of a man who’d been following Manda for some time. She’d gone to the wilderness to escape him, but the field notebook at his campsite revealed that he’d stayed unsettlingly close to his quarry for far longer than Manda realized. The novel recounts the months leading up to their fatal encounter in the wilderness.

The blurb on the front cover compares this book to those of Barbara Vine, and there’s certainly the same sinister psychological quality that is typical of a Vine novel. At first glance, Manda seems like a simple stalking victim, and her stalker, David, is extremely creepy, lacking any reasonable sense of boundaries and appearing to be inexplicably obsessed with a woman he hardly knows. It’s unsettling. But Manda’s reactions are almost as difficult to understand as those of her stalker—at least until we get to know Manda better.

As it turns out, the opening chapter of the book is not the first time Manda has found herself staring down from a ledge at a body below. And that piece of her history drives much of her behavior years later. She’s mistrustful of others, but she’s also mistrustful of herself. After years of feeling alone, Manda finally found a community with her boyfriend, Gareth, and his bird-watching friends, but Gareth has left her and she seems unable to accept anyone’s interest and affection. When she begins to feel fearful, it seems obvious that she should call the police or talk to her friends or her sister. But there’s something in her that keeps her from opening up. And that makes her vulnerable.

Hinchcliffe peppers the narrative with descriptions of birds that Manda and her friends observe; each chapter is the name of a bird Manda observes or thinks about. Often, the behavior of the birds mirrors the human behavior in some way, but Hinchcliffe doesn’t stretch that device too far. The plot ties up nicely without being too predictable. I didn’t put my finger precisely on what was going on, but I did notice that some aspects of the story didn’t make sense. I just wasn’t sure if it was poor plotting or laying the groundwork for some plot twists to appear later. The twists, when they do appear, seem obvious in retrospect, but I suppose that’s true of a lot of twists in novels like this.

I wouldn’t call this a stunner of a crime novel, but for a debut, it’s very good. It was published in 2008, and it’s Hinchcliffe’s only novel so far, although she has published several short stories. If she has another novel in her, I’d certainly consider reading it!

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