Ian Markham is a successful GP, living with his wife and bringing up twins, Jessica and David, the children of his former lover who died nine years previously. As Jessica grows older, her resemblance to her mother pushes Ian’s feelings into new territories. Unable to suppress his urges he finally forces a sexual relationship on his teenage stepdaughter, first by persuasion and then by intimidation. His feelings for David are less positive. He becomes ever more aggressive towards his “unmanly” stepson. His wife, Alice, is unloved by her husband and an unwilling stepmother. She yearns for equality in her marriage, becoming ever more disillusioned with the life she accepted.
Eventually matters come to a crisis and the twins decide to run away. They board a train heading for Bristol, where they hope to find their mother’s family, and this seals their fate. The train crashes, causing the lives of many people to be lost – most identified, two unknown.
The central premise of this novel is based on a true incident – on 13 October 1928 the Leeds to Bristol mail train ran into another on the line and was wrecked. Two of the dead, a teenage boy and girl, were never identified. The author has used this significant detail to spin a disturbing story of oppression and incest, hidden behind a respectable front door. It is a story in which the innocence of childhood is abruptly crushed and where betrayal hides behind a paternal smile.
As the tale unwinds the reader is slowly drawn into the horrifying lives of the young children, where a series of unsettling incidents culminate in brutal assaults. Post-accident the novel speeds up considerably and the ending seems just a little rushed, but that aside this was a thought-provoking read.