Nuala Ellwood

Day of the Accident

"This is a fascinating and well-constructed book."


Maggie wakes up in hospital after being in a coma for ten weeks. She has no recollection of the events that led up to the accident that put her there. Gradually, she pieces together the story. Her young daughter is dead and buried. She was drowned after being trapped in a locked car that rolled into the river, when she was in Maggie's care. Maggie's husband, at first so supportive, apparently left the hospital in anger after he finds out some information about his wife – information that Maggie cannot recall.

Slowly she recovers to find that every aspect of her world has fallen apart. Her daughter is dead, her husband has gone, the house they lived in is not theirs. From a happy, prosperous existence, she is left destitute.

Maggie has to cope with the realities of life outside hospital. The world of benefits, of basic living, of work, and of coping with the implacable hostility of Barbara, the mother of a boyfriend from Maggie's past.

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Maggie is the ultimate unreliable narrator, as she is unable to access all of her own memories and not only has the reader doubting, but doubts herself. In the end, she is driven to look for her past to try and find out why it was that her daughter died and her husband, in the end, blamed her. Was she to blame for their daughter's terrible death, and – as the book goes on the question starts to arise – did her daughter really die? Interspersed with Maggie's story are a series of letters from a child who seems to have been shut away from the family she loves and cares about, and is writing to her mother in the hopes her mother will come and find her. This is a fascinating and well-constructed book. Ellwood presents her story via Maggie's narrative point of view, the letters of a distressed child and the diary Maggie's husband writes in the hospital as he is waiting for her to recover or die, and includes the moment he discovers her secret – a secret Maggie is unaware of – that makes him leave her forever, with the words 'How could you do this? It was your fault, Maggie, all of it.' The plot is immensely complex, and it is credit to Ellwood's writing that it remains believable from start to finish. Ellwood explores tragedy, heartbreak and the relentless struggle of facing up to the mundane world after crisis and tragedy. Slowly, the mysteries surrounding Maggie, her daughter and her husband start to unravel. The book is described as having a twist – a very fashionable thing in current crime fiction. The ending is more nuanced than that. It is certainly unexpected, a layered winding up rather than an abrupt conclusion that fulfils the expectations Ellwood has set up. It certainly fulfils the requirement of a lot of crime fiction fans – it's unlikely you will guess the ending. Overall, this is an excellent page-turner of a book with strong characterisation, real emotional impact and vivid, convincing settings from the beauty of the riverside where the accident happens to the dreary flat Maggie moves to when she leaves hospital. If there is a criticism, it is that the central event – the death by drowning of a child – is so traumatic that it is hard to accept a simple winding up of the narrative and the possibility of closure. This is a more commercial ending than the events of the book warrant, and ironically perhaps, form the only part where the reader's belief might be challenged.

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