‘What Alice Knew’

I’m delighted to have had the opportunity to review ‘What Alice Knew’ by T A Cotterell, as my first blog post. I must confess that I know the author personally but I have done my level best to not let that cloud my judgement.


‘Alice has a perfect life – a great job, happy kids, a wonderful husband. Until he goes missing one night. She receives a suspicious phone call; things don’t quite add up.
Alice needs to know what’s going on. When she uncovers the truth she faces a brutal choice, but how can she be sure it’s the truth?’


What Alice Knew is, at its most basic level, a gripping psychological thriller that quickly sinks it’s teeth into you and canters towards an unexpected but deeply satisfying ending. It’s so much more than that though; this is a very clever, multi-faceted and beautifully crafted book.

The book starts with the ominous lines ‘A portrait is a quest for the truth. It spares no one.’
The voice of Alice, a portrait artist, then takes control of the narrative. She is opinionated and scathing, making for an uncomfortable bedfellow to begin with. However, as the opening lines portend, she embarks on a journey of discovery.

Alice is privileged and she’s also judgmental, arrogant and an intellectual snob even though she protests that she hates snobbishness. She’s obsessed with the ‘moral high ground’ but at least here she’s willing to admit that it’s a luxury she can for the moment afford. She is incarcerated in an allegorical cave, bound by her own arrogance. As the scales start dropping from her eyes her narrative softens and she transforms into a far more sympathetic character. Here we understand that the title of the book ‘What Alice Knew’ becomes ambiguous.

There are many themes woven throughout the tapestry of this novel – sacrifice and self sacrifice, truth and lies, perception and misperception. These themes (and there are more) are masterfully handled and they pose many questions that leave you thinking long after you’ve finished the book.

Having an artist as the narrator is a neat device as it dovetails very successfully with some of the key themes. This device also allows for full flexion of the authors Cantabridgian History of Art degree. It left me feeling smug when I understood the references and reaching for my iPad when I didn’t. Are there perhaps too many art references in this book? Possibly, but I’m willing to forgive that as I felt I’d learnt something when I’d finished the novel.

The dialogue in this book is sparkling. The words dissolve quickly into the pages and you’re left fully experiencing the voices of the characters. There’s some great writing and a plethora of memorable quotes. One of my favourite scenes was where Alice has to paint a portrait of her nemesis and it sparks with tension. She starts reciting a litany of colours in her head by way of a coping mechanism. I experienced this as having a metronomic quality, pieces of the puzzle dropping into place, nails in a coffin. Wonderfully atmospheric.

What Alice Knew would make a good choice for a book club. It’s a cracking story, jam packed full of topics for discussion. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and it gave me food for thought long after the final page.

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