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Secretive women’s commune provides background to Isabel Ashdown’s tension-packed thriller

33 Women by Isabel Ashdown 

Fifteen years ago, 20-year-old Vanessa Murphy was brutally murdered, but her killer has never been found…

And when another young woman is found dead in similar circumstances, Vanessa’s still-grieving sisters become convinced that there are links to a secretive women’s commune tucked away in the West Sussex countryside.

Since her debut novel, Glasshopper, was published to much acclaim way back in 2009, Isabel Ashdown has been garnering both accolades and acclaim – not least for addictive bestsellers Little Sister and Beautiful Liars – and her new dark, tension-packed thriller reinforces a career that is on an unstoppable winning run.

33 Women, a gripping, page-turning, time-travelling exploration of female power, family dynamics, and the lengths women will go to when pushed, blends murder, mystery and meticulous character development into an enthralling story of crime, community and self-discovery.

When sisters Celine and Pip get a call telling them that their reclusive mother Delilah Murphy has died, the women are reunited at Belle France, her large, gated, riverside home in Arundel to pick up the pieces and sort out her estate.

Both women are still struggling to come to terms with the killing of their beloved sister Vanessa who was badly beaten and strangled, and then her body ritualistically laid out on the boards of Brighton pier in 2005.

Her killer was never found and the sisters have barely seen their unpredictable and vain mother over the past decade and feel closer to Delilah’s friend and their former neighbour Una, a retired Scotland Yard police officer, who has been a constant in their lives.

As Celine and Pip confront ghosts from the past and discover a postcard from their dead sister to their mother indicating that she had been heading for a women’s refuge not long before she ‘went off the radar,’ another young woman’s body, found in similar circumstances to Vanessa only a few miles down the river, throws new light on their sister’s murder.

‘Could there be more to her case than the police first thought and what do the mysterious residents of Two Cross Farm, the neighbouring women’s commune, have to do with it?’

Could there be more to her case than the police first thought and what do the mysterious residents of Two Cross Farm, the neighbouring women’s commune, have to do with it? Una, Celine and Pip make their own investigations and become convinced that secrets are lurking behind their locked gates. What is this covert group of women hiding, and what is the significance of the number 33?

Darkness is never far away in this intriguing mystery which showcases Ashdown’s enviable gifts for spine-tingling atmospherics, finely detailed plotting, descriptive storytelling, and breathtakingly plausible characterisation.

33 Women features the universally fascinating topic of cults and communes as the darkest corners of families, hidden secrets, female friendships, and the search for your true self, are examined with a forensic eye that roams across two generations of strong and determined women.

The interplay between the past and the present, the series of hidden clues and shocking revelations buried deep within the slowly unfolding story, and the tangled webs of lies and secrets which constantly bubble just below the surface make this a gripping read full of menace and suspense.

Be prepared for a thrilling, edge-of-the-seat rollercoaster ride in which nothing is quite what it seems as Ashdown teases and taunts us with a series of jaw-dropping twists and turns right through to the ingenious, and utterly satisfying, final flourish.

(33 Women by Isabel Ashdown, Trapeze, paperback, £8.99)

Pam Norfolk
Pam Norfolk has been writing book reviews for over ten years, including for the Wordsworth Trust. She has also worked as a reporter and sub-editor on regional and national newspapers.

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