Black Is The Colour by Helen Howe

I’ll come clean: I’m wary of self-published fiction. This is because I’ve had so many people promote self-published novels to me, and when I’ve read a few sample pages, I’ve been immediately put off by things like glaring spelling and grammar errors in the first few pages, or writing that’s just plain bad. When there are many thousands of great books out that that have been through some form of quality control at least, I’m reluctant to risk hours of reading time on something that hasn’t benefited from that process. I’m sure this is unfair: after all, there are some traditionally published books that are utterly dire, and doubtless some self-published ones that are brilliant. But by and large, as a general rule, there’s a minimum standard, at least, for a traditionally published novel, but no such minimum standard exists for self-published work. Given that my reading time is precious, I’m rarely willing to risk wasting it.

Black Is The Colour is somewhat different though. For a start, the author Helen Howe tells me that a well-known literary agency has already picked it up and is seeking a traditional publishing deal for her while making her work available on Amazon in its current form to build up some interest in her work. I didn’t know this until after I read the book, however, so it was still something of a leap of faith for me when I decided to give it a go. It came to my attention when the author referred to it on Twitter and mentioned that it namechecks a favourite folk band of mine. Out of curiosity, I read a few sample pages and found them to be happily error-free and well-written enough to hold my attention, so I took a risk and downloaded the book to my Kindle. At less than two quid, I certainly couldn’t argue that I’d have wasted much money if I hated it, after all, and the premise of the novel interested me: a psychological thriller with a backdrop of folk music and self-sufficiency. (Yes, I’m a folk fan. Yes, I like jumpers and real ale. I’m still working on growing a beard, but being a girl I’m finding it tricky.)

I’m delighted to say that I’m not sorry I took a chance with Black Is The Colour. The story begins with Lauren, the narrator, falling head over heels for Jay through a haze of dope and fiddle-playing at a summer folk festival. Still smarting from her break-up with a married man, Lauren agrees, on impulse, to move into Jay’s isolated country cottage: they’ll raise chickens, grow their own veg and form a band, she imagines. But the cottage is a rundown 60s bungalow, there’s no phone reception or internet connection, and the band members are handpicked from Jay’s standoffish clique of local friends. And worse, it soon becomes obvious that Jay has something to hide. What happened to his previous partner? Why is he so inextricably tied to Dumpy, his sly, charmless, sullen best friend? How is he connected to the death of a girl at a local quarry? And what lies within the bungalow’s mysteriously locked room?

Black Is The Colour certainly stands up well against plenty of other psychological thrillers I’ve read as a gripping page-turner and a good holiday read. It’s dark and creepy with many a chilling moment and plenty of mysteries to puzzle over, and the characters are believable and well-drawn. There’s a hint of modern gothic in the mix, with a brooding, secretive love interest whose life seems peppered with eerie reminders of a darkly glamorous former wife (all very Rebecca), a strange mute child (one of my favourite characters in the novel), oddly hallucinogenic moments and claustrophobic rural isolation.

The folk-scene backdrop is convincing but not over-described and certainly shouldn’t put off non-folkies, and the pace – this is a pretty short read – is good. The main plot is skilfully executed and takes turns that, while unexpected, are mostly convincing. Bar a few tiny (and I do mean tiny) proofreading errors in this edition, the quality of Helen Howe’s prose easily ranks with many a bestselling thriller writer – Lauren’s narrative voice flows well and strikes a suitable balance between the colloquial and the atmospheric according to requirements.

It’s fair to say that I did have some issues with the book. The main problem I encountered was really that the plot of the novel is rather dependent on Lauren repeatedly making decisions that struck me as downright daft. For a woman who is clearly intelligent and independent, she seems remarkably willing to move in with a cute guy on a whim and to remain there despite some tremendously obvious warning signs that something is terribly wrong. If you’ve ever watched a horror film and been annoyed with a woman for creeping into an unlit basement at night to investigate a ghostly sound, then you’ll find there are many occasions during Black Is The Colour when you’ll want to shout at Lauren, no matter how much her actions are explained by the blindness of love (and in any case, Jay is frankly no Max de Winter). Moreover, her keenness to impress her sister Lou at apparently any cost and the importance she places on the appearance of the house, redecorating and refurnishing at a crazy pace despite Jay’s reluctance, seems infuriatingly superficial at times (although perhaps understandable at others, within the wider context of her circumstances). Without giving too much away, the success of the ending of this book rather relies on the reader being shocked at Lauren’s actions, but for me,  there was a sense in which they seemed rather inevitable – so, while I can’t deny that Helen Howe has done a fine job of keeping Lauren in character, this paradoxically slightly reduced the impact of the denouement in my eyes. Only slightly, though  - and it’s a subjective gripe on my part, albeit one that did niggle a little.

My only other issue with Black Is The Colour was that I felt there were perhaps a couple of elements to the plot that were unnecessary and didn’t quite sit well with the rest of the story – primarily a particular incident involving Lauren’s sister, and also an ambiguous nod towards the supernatural. In fairness, I did enjoy the latter, but just felt it could have been more deftly woven into the story: as it is, I felt there was a slight lack of cohesion. Taken in isolation, this element was well-executed, however – I can imagine Helen Howe writing a cracking ghost story one day.

Overall, though, I found Black Is The Colour an enjoyable read, one that I had no problem racing through from start to finish on a long journey. The psychological themes of obsession and control were cleverly explored and the plot and characters memorable – I could happily see this as a gripping TV drama. As far as I’m aware, this is Helen Howe’s first novel, and it’s impressive as a debut thriller. Any forthcoming publishing deal will be, in my eyes, deserved.