It has been three years since Amanda Craig’s previous novel, The Lie of the Land, the story of a foundering marriage set among the gathering shadows of Brexit. The Golden Rule is worth the wait. It opens with a nod to Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, the classic thriller in which two strangers, meeting by chance on a train, agree to murder each other’s wives. In this case, the genders are reversed, and the strangers are two women, Hannah and Jinni, who meet on the long journey from London to Cornwall.
Hannah, the central character, has escaped from her working-class Cornish family via university to London. But life has turned sour. Her husband, an entitled aristocratic sprig named Jake, has left her and their young daughter Maisy for the glamorous Eve. He is calculatedly cruel to her and rarely pays his share of the bills — so much so that Hannah is forced to clean other people’s houses to make ends meet. She cannot afford the train ticket to Cornwall, but she has no choice: her mother is on her deathbed.
After her mother’s death, Hannah makes her first attempt to kill Jinni’s husband, who lives in a crumbling mansion nearby. This goes awry when she stumbles into Stan, the drunken caretaker who is the house’s only other inhabitant. Long, looping flashbacks reveal Hannah’s past, while in the present she deals with the effects of her mother’s death and the sinister consequences of the bargain she made on the train.
Craig is an acute and passionate observer of society in both town and country, and among rich and poor. She is harrowingly good at portraying the corrosive effects of poverty, particularly on vulnerable women with children to protect. Her prose is a delight. (One elderly aristocrat has ‘teeth like faded yellow dusters’.)
As is usual with her novels, the cast includes some minor characters who are familiar from earlier books, at different times and in different contexts. One returnee, Mr Kenward, whose bookshop nourished Hannah’s childhood taste for fiction, quotes Logan Pearsall Smith: ‘People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading.’
It’s an ambivalent remark here. On one level, this is a love letter to reading. At the climax, when the characters we care most about are in great physical peril, they typically find time to discuss the value of fiction. But a theme of Craig’s is that books are alluring, dangerous things. Hannah’s reading has formed her, and made it possible for her to escape from Cornwall into a world with wider horizons; at the same time it has made her vulnerable, because life and fiction follow different rules.
On the other hand, it’s the power of story that gives this novel its depth: you do not need to dig far to find traces of Beauty and the Beast and Eros and Psyche, as well as the unsettling influence of Highsmith. Best of all, Craig has the knack of creating interesting characters and of making one care about what lies in store for them. If you can do that, nothing else really matters.
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