Twice by Susanna Kleeman

Mention spec fiction thrillers, conspiracy theories, and secret games to me – and I’ll always be interested – indeed these themes have been a common thread in several books I’ve read this year (see here, here and here in particular). So when approached by Susanna to read her debut novel Twice which features all of those themes and more, despite being wary of requests direct from authors, I was intrigued enough by its premise to read it.

Twice certainly is a complex thriller right from the start when someone knocks on Nim’s door late one evening, using a code from her childhood. But it’s not her friend Tal, it’s Chris – her former boyfriend, looking groomed, monied. She decides to give him ten minutes. He goes into a long apology spiel about their breakup, but that’s not his real reason for the visit of course. He gives her an envelope with photos from their childhood where they lived at Scritchwood Covert Motorhome Park with Alan and others. That’s not why he came either, that was a softener – he wants ‘the book’ back – the book full of all the games and the Alan stuff, he needs it urgently for his marriage and an event, he’ll pay. She doesn’t have it, it’s with Flora who lives off-grid in Wales. She’ll arrange to get it sent, there’s no way Flora would give it directly to Chris after what happened. Nim pushes him out, after some moments of indecision on the doorstep he walks away.

Then the door goes again – same code. It’s Chris – but it’s not Chris!

‘He’s my … brother,’ he said from behind the chain because I still wouldn’t let him in, his rotten shoe jamming open the door. ‘Yup, I got a …brother now. Identical. Twins, let’s call it. I didn’t know. I found out. We look the same, almost, outside. Inside we’re different. But there’s two of us and I’m the real one. (…) The one before’s my double, pretending to be me, fake.’

This Chris is dressed the same, but battered, grimy and stubbled, and he was missing the tip of his index finger. When Nim’s neighbour from the flat next door appears to see what the commotion is, Chris 2 takes the opportunity to grab Nim, bundling her out up the street and into a van, bound and gagged in the passenger seat, under a burka. He drives off… towards Wales. How could he know, unless he is the same Chris?

Confusing? And some! This is the start of a cat and mouse tale in which Chris 2 and Nim are pitted against the might of Chris 1 and whatever organisation he is part of, if they are two people that is. Has she picked the right Chris to side with?

The visits of the Chrisses awake something primal in Nim, she has most of the book in her head, the codes and games they ‘played’ as kids with Alan and the others, calling it ‘Scritch’. She also has a strong survival instinct. Things are complicated by Chris 2 working off-grid – getting rid of all digital tech so he can’t be tracked – except if the other Chris is him too, he can work out at least some of what Chris 2 is planning… Nim bides her time as Chris 2’s captive, building up trust, he’ll free her but by then her fate is so bound up in his that working together is the only way she can see of getting out of the nightmare alive. The Scritch codes and hand-Braille communication system embedded in her memory by Alan all those years ago may initially sound like a game, but it all becomes a matter of life and death and Nim holds most of the secrets. It also goes a bit psychedelic and Stranger Things, or is that just the drugs that Nim gets pumped up with? The chase takes us from London to Wales and all over the place, but ends up in Barrow.

Alan’s Scritch ‘games’ from their childhood have their roots in mysticism and symbolism, primarily of stone circles, green man, druidic or early Christian kinds combined with more modern equivalents, and as Nim and Chris 2 travel, he expounds at length about what the ancients left as codes for us, how to see the hidden messages. ‘Apophenia’ is the technical word for this human tendency to seek patterns in random information, as I happened to learn recently reading another novel about secret games, (Rabbits, reviewed here), and I had to question Chris 2’s sanity about all this – as you would!

From the beginning to the end of this novel, the reader is never sure what’s happening. As soon as you think you’re beginning to get a handle on things, the rug gets pulled from under you, and Nim will be on the run or captive, again. I liked Nim, she’s feisty and resourceful, straight-speaking with a great style in ironic humour and I definitely wanted her to survive the ordeal she’s put through. I found the Chrisses very much more sinister and creepy in comparison. I very much enjoyed Susanna Kleeman’s blend of themes in this unusual spec fiction thriller full of mess-with-your-head mind games, and would definitely read more by her.

Source: Review copy – thank you. Susanna Kleeman, Twice (Zero Books, June 2021), paperback original, 362 pages.

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