DESPITE the bedtime story image suggested by the title, American writer Hallie Ephron's new novel is no children's nursery rhyme. There Was an Old Woman is a tightly wrought, expertly written and frighteningly real suspense thriller that will keep you turning pages.
Mina Yetner is the title character, an elderly woman who lives alone with her cat in a Bronx neighbourhood that has seen better days. Although Mina walks with a cane and suffers from failing eyesight, she still has the energy to keep up with all the local gossip and to keep her house and property spotless.
Some of Mina's neighbours are not so fussy, particularly Mina's longtime next-door neighbour, a chronic alcoholic who has allowed her property to deteriorate to the level of a hoarder's hovel. When Mina's neighbour collapses from apparent liver failure and is sent to hospital, Evie, the neighbour's adult daughter, moves in temporarily to try to clean up years of neglect.
Over the next few weeks, while her mother's health declines, Evie and the older women form a friendship of sorts. For Mina, Evie is the daughter she never had; for Evie, Mina is the mother she always wanted. But we soon see that there is more to their relationship than meets the eye.
A local developer wants to fill in the marsh adjacent to both properties. He has been pressuring homeowners to sell, and several houses have already been slated for demolition.
Mina sees Evie as an ally in the fight against the danger to the properties. It soon becomes apparent that Evie herself may be in danger. The question is: from whom?
Mina's increasingly frequent lapses of memory could be an authentic and frightening symptom of old age. But could they be a clue to something more sinister? The smarmy neighbour from across the street says he is a good friend of Evie's mother.
But could his visits to her hospital room have another purpose? Mina's middle-aged nephew does his best to help his aunt, always stressing that he has her best interests at heart. But what is he really up to? The local corner-store owner is slowly making himself indispensable and desirable to Evie. But what are his real motives?
Book reviewer, journalist, and author of six novels, not to mention younger sister of the late screenwriter and memoirist Nora, Ephron is no stranger to hidden motives and women in peril. Her unsettling Never Tell a Lie won the David Award for best novel of 2009 and was shortlisted for the Mary Higgins Clark Award.
It was followed by Come and Find Me (2011), a suspenseful account of a house-bound woman who gets in a little over her hacker head when she tries to rescue her sister from an online game gone wrong.
But there is far more to Ephron's newest novel than suspense. There is a depth to her characters that is reminiscent of Ruth Rendell's probing, often painful characterizations.
The scenes in which Mina begins to wonder if she really is as feeble-minded as her nephew suggests are piercing. And the tenderness tinged with exasperation with which Evie deals with their mother's self-destructive behaviour is heart-breaking.
With well-developed characters and the threat of a very real menace, there are enough twists and turns in this story to make veteran suspense readers question their own mystery-solving abilities. The ending will make them question their own security.
Angela Narth is a Winnipeg author and literary reviewer. An excerpt of her recently completed novel appears in the current issue (No. 36.1) of Room literary magazine under the title Moccasin Tracks.