Twenty years after watching his loved one depart on a bus, Henry Evans, shy and retiring, wishes he had asked her not to leave. Only after the bus left did Henry realize he truly loved Francesca Chisholm, and his mad dash after the departing bus was in vain. All his life, Henry reminisces, he has been wisely running away from events and objects as well as people. As the story opens, Henry is in the English coastal town of Warbling seeking Francesca, where he learns she is in prison for the murder of her child.
Thus begins UNDERCURRENTS, a novel of suspense and mystery despite its seemingly prosaic storyline. Oddly, Francesca does not take part in the action of the story. Instead, Fyfield begins chapters in italic type, thus reflecting Francesca's remembrance of things past. There is no interaction between her and Henry or any other character; she is part of the story, but not in the story. Yet we learn more and more about Francesca on virtually every page. Oddly, this literary device heightens the suspense. The reader --- this reader, anyway --- will find themselves going back to reread the beginning in the light of the ending.
Undercurrents gets off to a slow start, as Fyfield narrates in a low key, underplaying rather than overplaying. In this respect she writes like Dick Francis, except that she is more subtle. As in her STARING AT THE LIGHT, her characters are presented on a psychological level as opposed to Dick Francis's action level. We do not have the stark contrast between Good and Evil of her STARING AT THE LIGHT characters, but her skills draw the readers deeper and deeper into what at the beginning seems dull but becomes expectant anticipation and haunting sympathy.
There is nothing mystic about her descriptions. She writes, "walking yielded at each step with a crunching sound which reminded him of someone eating breakfast cereal..." "The water sounded suspiciously sullen beneath the mist, plotting something..." "The video in the kitchen, looking odd in there, like a garden spade in a bedroom." Of a dog she says, "It had the gait, unhurried, even paced, like a distance runner with a long way to go and no doubt of the destination." And she is not entirely without humor. The experiments of one character with Viagra does much to alleviate the suspense without detracting from the story line.
The shy and self-effacing Henry turns decisive about 150 pages into the book, and thus makes faster friends and more bitter enemies. From that point on, the American learns the bittersweet truth about his Francesca.
UNDERCURRENTS is the 13th novel of this master of British understatement. We all can hope that Fyfield's day job as a criminal lawyer allows her time for a 14th.
Reviewed by Chuck Lang on April 19, 2001