“The Safe Place” by Anna Downes; Minotaur (352 pages, $26.99)

The beautiful, imposing mansion that is a bit creepy, isolated from the nearest town and neighbor is a familiar setting that has been vital to plots such as Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca” and Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw.” Add to that setting a young, impressionable woman who is emotionally isolated. With the right storytelling skills, this familiar trope can seem as fresh and new as Anna Downes proves in her gripping debut “The Safe Place.”

It would be kind to call Emily Proudman a hot mess, but loser also fits. She desperately wants to be a respected London actor, yet she badly flubs each audition. Overwhelmed by the smallest task, Emily can barely handle answering the telephone, greeting clients and managing faxes at her temp job at the investment firm Proem Partners. Virtually friendless, she is nearly estranged from her parents, whom she only calls when she wants money. Speaking of money, she’s about to kicked out of her apartment because the rent is months past due. It’s hardly a surprise when she gets fired. Naïve, gullible and prone to oversharing, Emily also is a kind, compassionate person.

While Emily was a terrible receptionist, her firing was orchestrated by Proem’s charismatic CEO, Scott Denny, who wants Emily to be the housekeeper and personal assistant for his wife, Nina, and tend to their 6-year-old daughter, Aurelia, at their remote estate Querencia, in the French countryside. At first, Emily is enthralled by the beautiful mansion and its grounds, Nina’s need for a friend and the copious amounts of wine. No cellphone service, no internet to intrude on the privacy Querencia offers. Emily’s compassion is boundless for Aurelia who suffers from a sunlight sensitivity and other issues. But Emily begins to take another look at her surroundings, finding it strange that an estate this large—complete with a small farm with livestock—has so few employees and, even odder, why Scott never visits Querencia.

Downes imbues “The Safe Place” with a strong sense of the gothic as she keeps the suspense high and the tension in the Querencia household palpable. “This was the kind of place where things could be different, where she could be different,” thinks Emily who, at first, relishes life here. But she soon sees the cracks in the foundations, the fraying furnishings and the unkempt grounds. And then, there’s an odd smell that permeates the estate.

Querencia proves to be anything but a safe place, affecting the psyche of each person. Nina’s strange behavior grows, along with her demands, which include banning Emily from the main house as Aurelia’s physical pain and emotional distress seem never-ending. 

Downes enhances her story as she adds a coming-of-age component to “The Safe Place.” Surrounded by decay, Emily proves her mettle as her maturation and emotional growth enhance the solid plot with its myriad surprises and twists. 

“The Safe Place” delivers a deliciously creepy debut. 


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