mon 15/07/2024

Rosamund Lupton: Three Hours review - gripping thriller with a Macbeth twist | reviews, news & interviews

Rosamund Lupton: Three Hours review - gripping thriller with a Macbeth twist

Rosamund Lupton: Three Hours review - gripping thriller with a Macbeth twist

A progressive school is under attack in Somerset: will the children survive?

Vicki Knights Photography

This is not a drill. Lock down, evacuation. An active school shooter is on the loose, actually more than one: two or three men in balaclavas with automatic shotguns. But this isn’t a high school or college in the USA – it’s in Somerset, England. A progressive co-ed school, founded in the 1920s, known for its liberal values, its lack of religious affiliation and its privileged pupils. A haven of political correctness. Who would want to attack it?

Rosamund Lupton writes bestselling, stylish thrillers and this, her fourth, is outstandingly suspenseful and fast-paced, though its denouement threatens to collapse under the weight of over-complicated plotting. You do feel sometimes that  there’s a little too much going on: hate crime, white supremacy, encryption, Syria, radicalisation, though as in her previous books, Three Hours is centred around family relationships, as well as the redemptive power of teenage love.

In The Quality of Silence and Afterwards, which features an arson attack on a private school in Chiswick (traumatic school events seem to be a stock in trade), it’s primarily the bond between a mother and child that’s explored. In Sister, her bestselling first novel, it’s the bond between siblings. All these and more, within a much larger cast of characters, feature in Three Hours.

Lupton is skilled at entering a child’s mind, as well as a parent’s, and at showing how crisis and danger can change you and allow you to discover aspects of yourself and your child that you didn’t know were there. In Three Hours, a mother who's desperate to know if her son is safe remembers feeling jealous of his potential girlfriends the day before: “She’d had no idea then of the love she had for Jamie, had assumed it was possessive, grasping, but the make-up of her love is not like that at all.”

Instead, she accepts him as he is – shy, lonely, unconfident. And in Afterwards, a mother, previously infuriated at her daughter for not working hard at school or caring about getting into university, can, under terrible pressure, discover her other, valuable qualities and see her as an independent being. In The Quality of Silence, a mother realises that pleading with her ten-year-old deaf child to “use her mouth voice” is misguided – sign language, her laptop and social media answer her real needs. Lupton herself has been partially deaf since childhood.

Three Hours is narrated in 10-minute increments throughout this terrifying snowy morning (anyone with a schoolchild might find it unbearable, and a manipulative, sentimental quality does lurk within) starting at 9.16am when the headmaster is shot in the head. The ends are tied up a little too hastily and neatly, with some frustratingly unanswered questions, and the mystery of a third terrorist serves to muddy the waters.

But this is genre fiction, with a staunch detective inspector, Rose, who has to prevail, as well as a character who, rather conveniently, has motives we’ll never completely understand because he’s a psychopath. But the inspector sees him, chillingly and brilliantly, as a hipster rather than a dark, malevolent brute: “a surfing, base-jumping DJ, a party guy, a prankster with Rohypnol in his pocket and a brick in his messenger bag, and hey! a semi-automatic in the kit bag, and he’s having a blast, man, a fucking blast!”3hours

The narrative is so overwhelmingly tense that the end can’t help but be a bit disappointing. We gradually learn who the attackers are – the suspense is extraordinarily powerful – against a backdrop of Twitter and texting and a production of Macbeth that some terrified students, locked in the theatre, valiantly continue to rehearse. Parallels between the play and the attacks are, perhaps, a bit far-fetched but mainly she pulls it off, and it's crucial to the final twist (literary references are another Lupton speciality). “Rafi told her once that for him it isn’t Macbeth and Lady Macbeth who are the frightening characters, but First Murderer, Second Murderer, Third Murderer, men without names; unknown killers in the darkness.”

Rafi and Basi, Syrian refugees, are central: it’s Rafi, aged 16, who spots the first bomb (merely a taster of the horrors to come) and who, with remarkable sangfroid, tells the headmaster to evacuate the junior school. Rafi brought Basi, his eight-year-old brother, from Syria after most of their family was killed, bearing his father’s copy of Macbeth (his father would quote from it, seeing Syria as a “suffering country under a hand accursed”).

Two years later both boys have bad PTSD but the head – an almost too selfless man who rescued the brothers from a camp in Dunkirk – believes Rafi in the face of sceptical colleagues. Snow is a trigger for Basi, as well as the sea, which compromises his safety during the school evacuation, and there are many flashbacks to their awful journey.

Too much trauma to take on board? Perhaps, but Three Hours is tightly and elegantly written, immensely gripping and carries us along with unstoppable verve.

Three Hours by Rosamund Lupton (Viking, £14.99)


The inspector sees the psychopath as a hipster, a party guy, rather than a dark, malevolent brute


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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