"I died twice.
The first time, I wanted to die. I thought death as the place where
the pain would stop, where the fear would finally cease.
The second time, I didn't want to die. In spite of the pain and in
spite of the fear, I had at last decided that I was where I needed
to be. Messy, scary, tiring, lovely, hurting life, with all its
failures its sadness, with all its sudden and unlooked for bits of
joy that make you close your eyes and think..."
"I didn't want to be dead, but someone else wanted me to be. They
tried very hard to make me die. I am a person who people seem to
either love or hate. Sometimes it's been hard to tell the
difference between the two."
Holly Krauss is the main character in Nicci French's most recent
novel, CATCH ME WHEN I FALL. This opening soliloquy is chilling and
immediately alerts the reader not to take things at face value.
From here the story unfolds with riveting speed, but not before
some questions arise: Who is this woman? Why is she the alleged
target of an anonymous murderer? What could she have done to
deserve to die at the hands of a killer? Or, as events collide with
each other and Holly becomes a fully limned character, one has to
ask: "Is this woman paranoid? She is often reckless and painfully
self-destructive, but should that mark her as a target for a
killer? Does she really believe her behavior doesn't attract
attention? Is she imagining the stalker, the thug who (she claims)
came to her home? Are merciless gangsters really on her
Holly is a young married woman who is in business with her best
friend Meg. They run a consulting company that offers businesses a
"shake up" by taking them away for incentive, inventive and
rejuvenating weekends. Holly, the "people person," does most of the
solicitations, sells the concepts and runs the presentations. Meg
handles all of the other aspects of their enterprise. Holly is a
dynamic, beautiful and smart individual who is totally absorbed in
her work and responsibilities. She needs little if any sleep and
rarely eats an entire meal.
Her husband Charlie is a work-at-home graphic artist who seems to
mark time and lose clients on a regular basis. He mostly forgets to
get paid since he doesn't open his mail or send out bills for his
work. Overall he is a selfish loser who lives in his own fantasy
world. The couple married impulsively and their one-year
anniversary is rapidly approaching. Things are not perfect by a
long shot, but soon they will become sinister and shocking.
One night after work, Meg invites Holly to join her and several men
for a drink. The guys appear to be friends and the women feel "safe
as houses" with them. But our heroine gets very drunk and is
suddenly caught up in a parallel world and finds parts of herself
she never knew existed. The "wild side" of her breaks out with
abandon and she begins a journey that demeans her, humiliates her,
and puts her in danger. On another occasion a one-night stand turns
into a "Mr. Goodbar" nightmare.
The trouble gets out of hand when she receives a call from one of
the men from the drinking party: "I'm going to a poker game at a
friend's house. And I thought it might be fun if you came as well.
You don't have to play, though. You can watch us and drink whiskey
and blow smoke rings." Yes she will go...against her better
judgment. As she gets herself ready she says, "I wanted to look
like a femme fatale in a noir film of the forties, standing in a
stairwell and slabbed shadows falling across my face. I wanted to
wear stiletto heels and a tight skirt and shrug nonchalantly at
pain and danger." Someone should have reminded her to be careful
what you wish for.
Of course Holly is so far into her own stratosphere that she never
thinks about what could happen to her with these six men. "I feel
exhilaration of escaping into another world, where different things
are done." When one of the players abandons his seat, she timidly
sits down and soon is part of the game. "I'm playing and then I'm
not playing. Now I'm sitting on a leather sofa...drinking another
drink and I have a feeling that there are things about this that
are not funny." She is stranded with no money and no idea of how
she will get home. "Money. There's something...somebody said after
a few hands didn't go so well. Somebody said a figure: nine
thousand pounds. That's what I owe. That can't be right. I was just
playing" for fun. She now is in danger from professional gamblers
and thugs. Then, the straw that "breaks" her is when she fires one
of the workers in the office; after that she completely loses her
center. She no longer knows herself, and those who love her don't
recognize their fair-haired girl.
Holly is running on empty and no longer is able to grasp what is
happening to her. She is completely vulnerable and finally has the
breakdown she cannot avoid. Unfortunately she collapses on the
street and is perceived as a drunk. People stare at her, but it
takes some time before someone gets her to the hospital. Finally
she is able to rest, to reflect, to choose between life and
Nikki French's novels are shaded in hues of gray, not
black-and-white issues or events. She creates an ambiance that
immediately draws readers into the lives of her characters yet
manages to withhold enough information to keep her audience apace
with the plot and still keep secrets hidden. Her stories are read
well because they are written in smart, evocative prose, which adds
to the creepy sense that every action has an extraordinarily
While French's milieu is not "horror," her plots evoke terror in
readers because they are so believable. As a matter of fact she
raises universal questions like: Is perception reality? Can anyone
truly know another individual? How does childhood trauma inform the
adult? And in CATCH ME WHEN I FALL she specifically wrestles with
the disintegration of a mind/personality/persona/person, as in
sometimes it's "wise to be paranoid" because "they" are out there
and want to get you.
This is a courageous book that shines a light on topics most people
prefer not to confront. Nikki French is the pseudonym of London
journalists Nicci Gerrard and Sean French, and together they have
produced a body of work worthy of great praise.
Reviewed by Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum on January 11, 2011