Before you dive into this review, you need to know that Sophie Hannah is one of my all-time favorite writers. I haven’t met one of her books that I didn’t like, and Perfect Little Children was no exception.
Sophie Hannah’s books, for me, are some of the best mysteries around. Her premises are so completely inexplicable… her villains are so completely unhinged… and the women who inhabit her novels are so unbelievably strong, either in their convictions or what they can endure or both. Despite the often devastating subject matter, she manages to inject real levity and humor into her work (Zannah, in this book, is such a fun character). And of course, she crafts a mystery better than pretty much anyone.
My only problem with Sophie Hannah books is that I have absolutely zero self control around them and simply cannot put them down… and then I have to wait for the next one!
Mini Plot Summary: This book begins with something completely nonsensical: Beth finds herself outside the house of her ex-friend, whom she hasn’t seen in twelve years. Her friend pulls up to the house and calls to her two children, Thomas and Emily, to get out of the car. But when the children emerge, they aren’t seventeen and fifteen as they should be. They are still five and three. The story unfolds from there, with Beth determined to find out why these two children haven’t aged a day in twelve years. And the answer is both inevitable and horrifying.
What I Liked About This Book: For me, Sophie Hannah is the queen of the bizarre plot line. I don’t know how she does it, but she comes up with the wildest, most bonkers ideas – things you know in your heart are completely impossible. And then somehow they unfold into something that a) Hannah explains in a way that makes complete sense and b) shows how twisted and nefarious her villains are and c) exposes some awful, hidden, and yet somehow recognizable aspect of the human psyche. So I loved the premise of this particular book. To merely suggest that two children might not have aged at all in twelve years unleashed a flood of wonderful possible answers in my brain. Were they clones? Were they ghosts? Had they been cryogenically preserved and resuscitated? Was the narrator losing her mind?
Hannah is also one of the few writers I know of (Kate Atkinson is another) who can write about dark, deeply disturbing topics, and still inject a not-discordant sense of humor into her writing. Zannah – Beth’s daughter – and Beth herself are both witty and wry, and I love having that juxtaposition of horrifying and humorous.
Sophie Hannah also comes up with amazing villains. Hers are some of the most disturbed, cruel, sadistic villains I have ever encountered – often because the cruelty they inflict is, in some ways, so mundane. There is no gratuitous violence in Perfect Little Children, no gore, very little blood. And yet the depravity is worse, somehow, for its insidious nature. I think it has to do with Hannah’s in-depth understanding of her characters’ psyches – she knows what drives them and so understands how and why they would unleash their hatred/fury/disgust on others. This makes the reveals, when they come, both surprising – because I almost never see the ending coming – and utterly expected – because they make total sense in the logic of the villain’s mind. I love it.
Those are all specific things I enjoyed about this book, but they apply equally to nearly all of her other novels (at least those I’ve read). Something specific to this book is that I really liked the character of Beth. She was strong, she was driven, she had a very well-defined moral compass, and she was willing to go to great lengths to do what she saw as the right thing.
What I Didn’t Like About This Book: There are a few nitpicky criticisms I have of this book, although they did not mar my enjoyment of the book in the least.
The first – and I don’t THINK this spoils anything, but be aware that it might be a TEENY bit spoily before you continue this paragraph – is that I found it hard to believe that Beth had no consequences. She skips out on her clients a few times, and ignores her husband’s requests, and goes right on doing exactly what she wants to do without regard for what others want… and I found that, well, kind of irritating (although that kind of bullish drive is also what makes Beth such a vivid character), but also hard to believe. This is such a little thing. Would it add anything to the book if Hannah said a client or two got mad or fired Beth? Would it help the story at all if Beth’s husband completely refused to go along with her whims? No and no. And it’s not as though the main plot is super true-to-life – there’s definitely some disbelief you have to suspend as you read. So I don’t know why it rubbed me the wrong way. But there you go.
The other aspect of this book that perplexed me was a side plot that happened somewhere in the middle. It involved Zannah and it was interesting to read… but I wasn’t really sure how it fit in. Not everything has to fit! I am fine reading about things that don’t move the story forward! But this one felt… heavier than it maybe should have? Like, it seemed to have more significance than it eventually did. I think – and again, very mini semi-spoiler coming, so if you don’t want even the hint of a spoil, skip to the next section – it was to show how useful it can be to record someone, which is a topic that came back later (though in a very different way). But if that was the point of this side plot, I think the same outcome could have been achieved through something much shorter and with less weight. Then again, it didn’t bother me at the time – only upon reflection did I wonder why it was made into such a big deal.
Oh boy – sometimes it is VERY hard to talk about things without giving things away. There was one other aspect of the villainy that seemed a little… slapdash to me. It was explained away in the book, and so I kind of shrugged and went, “Okay, fine, I can work with that,” but it wasn’t as elegant as maybe I would have wanted.
Oh! There was one other little thing! It was kind of cultish and didn’t get the thorough explication I was hoping for. If you know what I mean and have ideas about what was going on, let me know in the comments.
These last two “criticisms,” especially are more like things that I found fascinating about the story and wanted MORE of. Alas. Sometimes we do not get everything we want out of life or our novels! Sometimes there is no cherry on top of the sundae – “just” piles of whipped cream and scrolls of hot caramel sauce and mounds and mounds of delicious ice cream.
Should You Read This Book? Sophie Hannah is an author whose books I await with HUGE anticipation. And I really, really enjoyed this book. It was well-written and absorbing and weird and compelling and, as always with Hannah’s books, I wish I hadn’t gulped it down so fast instead of savoring it a little. So obviously I think you should read it too. Then we can discuss the villains and their actions and the bits that I wanted MORE of. The plot definitely touches on some very hard subjects, though, so let me know if you would like any content warnings and I can email them to you before you dive in.