THE QUIET TENANT, by Clémence Michallon
Clémence Michallon’s assured debut, “The Quiet Tenant,” is an expertly paced psychological thriller that follows three female characters, each compelled and controlled in different ways by the same man.
The book begins with a mysterious character referred to as “the woman in the shed,” who’s been confined and raped for the past five years by Aidan Thomas, a young widower and single dad. A model citizen of the strong, silent type, he is well liked in his small, unnamed town and always seems to appear just when an extra skilled hand is needed. But Aidan has two secrets: the woman in the shed, whom he renames Rachel, and the fact that he has also killed eight other women for sport.
Rachel has recently learned some bad news: After the recent death of Aidan’s wife, his in-laws have decided to sell the house where he lives with his 13-year-old daughter, Cecilia. Rachel assumes that this means her end is near unless she can persuade Aidan to take her along with him.
Miraculously, she does. Aidan moves Rachel into the bedroom next to Cecilia’s. Thinking this woman is a friend of her father’s down on her luck, Cecilia doesn’t see the handcuffs that bind Rachel to the radiator for the majority of the day, or that Aidan unlocks her only for breakfast, dinner and the midnight assaults.
Over the years, Aidan has trained Rachel to participate in her own imprisonment, an assimilation that becomes increasingly distressing to witness. Why can’t Rachel tell Cecilia? Why wouldn’t Rachel cry for help when she has chance run-ins with other people in town, like the judge who is renting Aidan his home? Why, in the rare moments she’s uncuffed, doesn’t Rachel run for her life? The answer is simple, but no less harrowing for that: Aidan has convinced Rachel that he is all-knowing. He tells her he has cameras monitoring her every move and that if she tries to remove the tracking device he’s fastened to her wrist, “I’ll notice.” She believes that any attempt at freedom will cause only more harm.
Where Emma Donoghue’s 2010 novel “Room,” also about a woman trapped in a shed by her rapist, limits itself to the single-camera perspective of the captive woman’s 5-year-old son, Michallon tells her story from multiple angles: Rachel’s, Cecilia’s and that of a local bartender named Emily who has a crush on Aidan. Because of what we know from Rachel’s dissociated, second-person chapters, the other characters’ first-person chapters instill that much more dread.
Seeing Aidan through the eyes of people who view him benignly, even lovingly, we feel the danger in each of this monster’s relationships and the ways in which people are blinded to it. Emily justifies away all the red flags that suggest he might actually be hunting her, rather than requiting her romantic feelings (the ominous heavy duffel bag, spotting his truck lurking outside a bar where she hadn’t made plans to see him); and Cecilia has lived her entire life under his control and has now lost the protective force of her mother. Peppered throughout are the voices of the eight women Aidan has murdered, narrating their final moments.
In less capable hands, so many points of view could have felt messy and confusing; but Michallon makes deft use of this structure to build momentum toward a white-knuckle climax, when the three story lines converge. Even her decision to tell Rachel’s story in the second person feels necessary; the “you” who has been held captive is not the same person who was once free.
Michallon makes it easy to believe that these three characters could be so detached from their realities as to make frustratingly misguided choices. The book poses the powerful question to its reader: What do we really know about the people around us, and how might we be dangerously wrong?
Jac Jemc is the author, most recently, of the novel “Empty Theatre.”
THE QUIET TENANT | By Clémence Michallon | 303 pp. | Alfred A. Knopf | $28