Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry
How do you find your sister’s killer when no one will help you?
When Nora takes the train from London to visit her sister in the Oxfordshire countryside, she expects to find her waiting at the station, or at home cooking dinner. But when she walks into Rachel’s home, what she finds is entirely different: her sister has been the victim of a brutal murder.
First published in 2016, Berry’s Under the Harrow is a compelling and taut debut thriller, which deals with the psychological impact of a vicious physical assault, as well as grief which follows the loss of a loved one in a manner most terrifying. It offers a one-sitting read, immersing the reader in an emotional depiction of what life is like for family members shaken by death, and the challenges they face when caught between the normalcy of daily life and their obsession with catching the perpetrator. It provides a story so gripping, yet written in a manner so simplistic and ominous, that it will leave you guessing until the very last few pages.
Under the Harrow’s narrator is a twenty-something young woman named Nora, who is planning on visiting her sister, Rachel, at her home in a small Oxfordshire village. Rachel is a nurse with an uneasy past, but she hoped that moving away from her previous town would allow her some peace. However, upon arriving, Nora’s world is turned upside down when both Rachel and her beloved German Shepherd are found murdered upstairs in their home. And Nora feels that only she can solve the case due to a previous police failing when dealing with Rachel’s assault fifteen years earlier in their hometown, Snaith. But what she discovers is that, maybe, she did not know her sister all that well.
It is safe to say that a lot of crime thrillers tend not to deal with the concept of grief head on – most are written in the perspective of an officer or detective, with the family members mentioned but not often thoroughly explored. Yet, what makes Under the Harrow so enthralling and almost painful (in a good way) is the rawness of Nora’s actions and thoughts. Her trauma in the following pages makes for an illogical and unreliable read, but that is what makes Berry’s work so refreshing. Nora jolts back and forth between her memories of Rachel and the present day, even saying she will recall exactly what is said during the investigation as she knows Rachel would want to hear it verbatim later on. And Berry does well in showcasing the impact of violence and how it continues to resonate years after its occurrence.
It is even plausible to argue that this book is not so much about the solving of Rachel’s murder but an exploration into how the character’s affected have become the way they are. We learn of the differences between the sisters, although it can be said that both are equally as flawed as one another. We learn briefly about their childhood – an alcoholic father, their tight bond, but also their anger towards each other that tends to come out, often than not, after heavy drinking. It looks at a relationship that although filled with love has also been shrouded in acts of dislike and animosity. But it is safe to say that Berry takes two characters who seemingly have been through it all and creates dimensional beings that you are rooting for, albeit also sceptical of.
This book contains a nice balance of what most readers wish to see, with glimpses of the truth tangled up in a complex and interesting backstory. And if there is one line I can offer which establishes the subtlety and yet thought-provoking stance that spreads throughout the book, it is this:
‘What’s your favourite thing about Cornwall? I asked her. But it wasn’t what I meant. I meant, what’s your favourite thing about being alive?’