At the start of Louise Candlish's superb thriller "Our House," Fi Lawson, a 40-ish wife and mother, is returning to her comfortable home in South London when she is greeted by an alarming sight: Someone is moving into her house.
Movers are carrying furniture into the house where Fi (short for Fiona) has lived for a decade with her now-estranged husband and their two young sons. She hurries inside and confronts the woman she finds there. This is my house, Fi declares. No, the woman insists, my husband and I have bought it.
Real estate agents, lawyers and police are summoned. Finally the awful truth emerges: The couple has indeed bought the house from Fi's husband Bram (for Abraham) for 2 million pounds. They produce a sales document that features Fi's forged signature, along with that of Bram, whose whereabouts are unknown. Fi's beloved house is no longer hers. Where is she to go? What can she tell her sons? The rest of the novel explains how this disaster came to pass.
Fi is kind and loving. Bram is genial and a devoted father, but overly fond of booze, driving too fast and the temptations of the flesh. Some months earlier, Fi arrived home early and found him entwined with another woman in the playhouse he'd built for their sons in the backyard. She'd forgiven him once before; this time, she threw him out.
Bram blunders on. Driving too fast, he forces another car off the road, leaving its driver and her 10-year-old daughter seriously injured. Bram, whose license had been revoked for earlier speeding offenses, fled the scene. He faces at least 10 years in prison if he's found out.
Enter the villain, who calls himself Mike. He saw the accident and learned who Bram is and what punishment he faces. He demands money from Bram, who protests that he has none. Mike reminds him that he owns (co-owns, actually) a house worth 2 million pounds. He gives Bram a choice: sell the house and hand over the money or go to prison.
Questions abound. Can Bram, having concluded that murdering the blackmailer isn't an option, find a legal way to save the house? Might he and Fi reconcile? Will good-hearted Fi figure out that the charming fellow she's begun dating is a rotter? She's aided in her struggles by her friends in the neighborhood, including one who confesses an affair with Bram. Another tells her: "He's a type, Fi. A bad boy. However hard he tries he can never be fully rehabilitated."
Fi looks back at their courtship: "When we got married I thought I'd done the impossible, settled down with a man who was never going to settle down - until he met me, of course."
For his part, Bram says: "Why did I cheat on the woman I love? The best way that I can explain it was not an addiction or even an itch, but more like the memory of hunger after years of good eating."
Candlish skillfully portrays Fi's friendships with other wives in her South London neighborhood, where the author herself lives with her husband and daughter. The friends discuss the challenges of motherhood, as well as of marriage. Over gin and tonics one evening, one friend admits, "If I had my way, children would stay in primary school forever, and it would never occur to them that we're not always right about absolutely everything."
When Fi starts dating, a friend advises her: "'Hard to get' doesn't exist as a concept anymore. Everyone is easy to get." Fi is neither hard to get nor quick to realize she's being taken for a ride. Few male writers could have captured these women as shrewdly and affectionately as Candlish has.
Candlish has said that "Our House," which deserves to be called a literary thriller, was inspired by a case of property fraud she read about in a London newspaper. We read on, wondering if Fi's house can be saved, if Bram is destined for prison or if a happy ending might somehow emerge. In fact, the ending Candlish has devised is devastating.
Candlish has published 11 previous novels in England, including "The Swimming Pool," "The Second Husband" and "Other People's Secrets," but this is her first to appear in this country. Perhaps its excellence will move an American editor to bring out others. I'd like to read them all.
Anderson reviews thrillers and mysteries regularly for The Washington Post.