The Choice by Penny Hancock: Compelling, complex and exquisitely imagined family drama – book review –

To outsiders, successful relationship therapist Renee Gulliver appears to have it all… a beautiful coastal home that everyone envies, mother to three grown-up children, and grandmother to a much-loved little boy.

By Pam Norfolk
Monday, 1st August 2022, 3:45 pm
The Choice by Penny Hancock
The Choice by Penny Hancock

But behind the façade of contentment, there are heartbreaking secrets and painful rifts that have fractured the lives of her loved ones… and when her grandson goes missing, the past comes back to haunt Renee with such a force that it will make, or break, her family.

London-born Penny Hancock – author of internationally bestselling novels like Tideline and The Darkening Hour – is also noted for her articles and short stories on family psychology and this compelling, complex and exquisitely imagined family drama, about secrets, silences and the power of love, is full of her trademark wisdom and insight.

Her neighbours and friends think Renee Gulliver is lucky to have a good job, a stunning home close to the estuary and a happy family life, particularly since the arrival of her grandson Xavier who is now aged six and the apple of her eye.

But things aren’t always as they seem on the surface, as Renee is all too aware. The truth is that there are unspoken secrets festering within the family, events that have been ‘edited out,’ and outsiders don’t see ‘the fault, the blip, the dark stain on our perfect panoply that no one even talks about.’

Her husband Tobias had a stroke a few years ago and has ‘willingly adopted the role of dependent,’ her mother is struggling with dementia, her son George lives with the physical and mental scars of a terrible childhood scalding accident, her elder daughter Irena has been estranged from the family since the age of eighteen, and younger daughter Mia (mother to Xavier) has a rather chilly relationship with Renee.

But then Xavier vanishes after Renee fails to pick him up from school, and the repercussions rapidly ripple through the family and their local community. Renee is racked with remorse and guilt, her family priorities are questioned, clients abandon her and, as long-held grievances surface, her daughter Mia offers her a heartbreaking ultimatum.

As long-held family secrets threaten to tear her world apart once and for all, those same secrets might also hold hope for the future… because it's not always the secret itself that has the power to destroy. Sometimes it’s the act of keeping of it.

With its haunting exploration of the destructive legacy of old lies and hidden truths, and a cast of characters portrayed with rich, authentic detail and an acute observation of human frailty, The Choice takes readers deep inside the inner workings of the dysfunctional Gulliver family.

And it’s there we learn of the gaps, misunderstandings and mistakes that have blighted their lives over many years, and begin to observe the way in which even the smallest of decisions can have consequences reaching far into the future.

Taking the lead role is Renee, a woman caught in what is now recognised as the ‘sandwich’ generation, juggling the demands of her children and grandchild, the discomforts of the menopause, an ailing husband, and a dementia-stricken mother.

As a family counsellor, Renee should be best placed to heal her own family’s wounds but, overburdened with guilt, responsibilities and old secrets, it’s a battle she often feels helpless and hindered to fight.

But the disappearance of Xavier becomes not just Renee’s call to arms but a wake-up for all the family. Until the boy is found, they cannot rest, and with no closure on events in the past, there is nowhere for their pain to go.

Beautifully written, thought-provoking, and brimming with powerful and recognisable emotions, Hancock’s superbly wrought story speaks straight from the heart.

(Mantle, hardback, £16.99)