by Louise Jensen
‘Pain slices through my skull as I sit up. I raise my hand gingerly to the side of my head. A lump ….. nausea crashes over me in sickening waves and I have the sensation of falling. Quickly lowering my hands to steady myself, I see it. The blood.’
Alison (Ali) Taylor, recently separated from her husband Matt, is persuaded by her housemate Chrissy and her best friend Jules to go on a date. She wakes up the morning after nauseous, covered in blood from a head wound and unable to recognise herself in the mirror. She remembers nothing of the previous evening’s events. A doctor at the hospital diagnoses prosopagnosia, better known as face-blindness, a condition which is often congenital but can also be caused by trauma to the brain – such as by the blow to Ali’s skull.
It’s not long before Ali realises she’s being stalked by an enemy, whom she believes to be her recent date, Ewan. Her car is damaged; there is blood on that too. And she is getting threatening messages. Moreover, Chrissy has gone missing. Ali doesn’t recognise any of her friends, or her estranged husband. Even her brother Ben’s face is unfamiliar. And because she has no memory of the date, she is afraid to go to the police, fearing she has done something terrible while in a drunken state. Whoever is threatening her is taking full advantage of her face-blindness to play with her mind and emotions.
‘Going mad – going mad – going mad cackles that acerbic voice but I’m convinced someone has been here. Even if the radio had somehow switched itself on accidentally, it wouldn’t have played the 80s station; last night I distinctly remember retuning it to Classic FM.’
Determine to discover the truth, Ali submits to hypnosis which at first is unsuccessful. She decides to visit the club where they spent the evening and persuades Jules to accompany her. Some few memories begin to come back but they are horribly jumbled. But when she starts questioning customers and staff she incites the suspicion of the manager. Who is Ewan? Does he even exist or are haunting memories of her childhood making her imagine enemies behind every shadow? Yet the threats are real. Someone has been in her house and has painted ‘murderer’ on the front door. And when every face is that of a stranger, the enemy could be anyone at all.
Events in The Date take place over ten days, a short enough time span, but in this case long enough for Ali to relive parts of her childhood. She begins to see connections with the past, to draw conclusions and to form theories. By whom, and why, is she being stalked and threatened? Because we see the world only from Ali’s point of view, we cannot tell whether or not her conclusions are correct. The story twists and turns from chapter to chapter until, at last, Ali remembers what happened on that awful evening. But by now, her tormentor is out in the open, and leading her towards a cliff-edge finale, one in which, literally, she cannot tell friend from enemy.
The Date has many strands and they all tick the right boxes. Real face-blindness affects relatively few. It must be truly terrifying, especially when it strikes in circumstances similar to those related in this novel. However, I think we all experience some of its fears: the meet-and-greet at the airport – the relative who emigrated twenty-five years ago and whom we haven’t seen since; the face in the crowd, the policeman out of uniform, the dentist without the drill in his hand, peering down from a few centimetres above our supine (and nervous) body; the casual date we have arranged to meet in the pub. Will we recognise her/him/them in different circumstances and surroundings?
‘I feel the blood drain from my face. You don’t want to go to the police, Ali. You’ve got blood on your hands. And I realise they are not here for Dad after all. They are here for me.’
Louise Jensen also deals several sub-themes in this novel. One of these is Motor Neurone Disease. Not so long ago, a good friend contracted MND and died of the condition. Family are helpless and friends tiptoe around, knowing the heart-breaking end is not far off but not knowing what to do or say. Unlike many other diseases, even cancer, MND is incurable.
Then there are the lies parents sometimes tell their children, and the guilt a child feels at the death of a parent, whether or not he/she was directly or indirectly responsible for it. These are all things experienced by Ali and they shape her response to what is happening around her.
When is a good time to write a particular novel? In a postscript to The Date, Jensen tells us that the story has been on and off the burner for quite a while – since around the time of her first novel, The Sister, in fact. Meanwhile, she has written two other successful thrillers, The Gift and The Surrogate and has demonstrated her skill at handling multiple themes, providing us with mental gymnastics and giving us protagonists whose POV may or may not be reliable.
Many writers, basking in the glow of a first success, let the standard slip. Louise Jensen has not done that. Each story has given us something fresh, a premise which, even if controversial, has provided us with an intelligent, well-written plot and believable, if flawed, characters. The Date has done it again.
Written two years ago – and I hope Louise Jensen will not mind me saying this – it might not have worked so well. Written today, it radiates a new maturity in a writer now confident of her own abilities.