‘The Night Olivia Fell’ by Christina McDonald ⭐⭐⭐⭐

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A search for the truth. A lifetime of lies.

In the small hours of the morning, Abi Knight is startled awake by the phone call no mother wants to get: her teenage daughter Olivia has fallen off a bridge. Not only is Olivia brain dead, she’s pregnant and must remain on life support to keep her baby alive. And then Abi sees the dark bruises circling Olivia’s wrists.

When the police unexpectedly rule Olivia’s fall an accident, Abi decides to find out what really happened that night. Heartbroken and grieving, she unravels the threads of her daughter’s life. Was Olivia’s fall an accident? Or something far more sinister?

Christina McDonald weaves a suspenseful and heartwrenching tale of hidden relationships, devastating lies, and the power of a mother’s love. With flashbacks of Olivia’s own resolve to uncover family secrets, this taut and emotional novel asks: how well do you know your children? And how well do they know you?

I was unprepared for how heartbreaking this book would be, for the tears that flowed in the final chapters; something that hasn’t happened in a few years. There was an overwhelming sense of sorrow and the futile hope that the inevitable ending would change. An amalgamation of mystery, suspense, psychological thriller and tragedy, this is a book you won’t forget.

Abi Knight is woken one night with the call all parents dread: her 17-year-old daughter Olivia is in the hospital, brain dead after falling from a bridge. When the doctor tells her that they are only keeping her alive because of her unborn baby Abi is stunned. She had noticed her daughter wasn’t herself lately, and had even wondered if it was more than teen moodiness, but she was totally unprepared for this.

When the police rule the fall an accident Abi is incensed. To her it is obvious Olivia was pushed: she has bruising on her wrists and the charm bracelet she never took off is missing. With her pleas are falling on deaf ears the grieving mum begins to investigate herself, unaware she is now on a path that mean she will have to confront her greatest fears.

As Abi investigates, she realises how little she really knew about her daughter’s life, including her knowledge of the secret Abi has always tried to hide. Olivia was conceived during a passionate, clandestine relationship. So, with her former lover’s threats ringing in her ears for 17 years, Abi spun a web of lies about his identity, never considering her daughter doubts what she’s been told. When she discovers that Olivia had uncovered the deception and was secretly trying to find out the truth about her father, Abi is terrified. Thankfully she’s being helped by victim advocate Anthony who has the right knowledge and connections she needs to prove who hurt Olivia that night before time runs out.

This book started off to me like any other thriller. I was riveted by the prologue and loved the imagery used by the author. It felt like there was a movie reel playing in my mind as I read. The different language used depending on whether it was Abi or Olivia narraTing was perfect. Abi read exactly like a loving, devoted mother who was also a little overbearing, controlling and neurotic. She clearly has her daughter’s best interest at the centre of every move she makes and while her decision to tell lie about Olivia’s father proves to be the wrong choice, it is one that you can understand her making as a young, frightened girl. Her own past is marred by tragedy and parental abandonment and you can see how this has lead to her going to extremes to live her life as Olivia’s mum and nothing more. Her anguish as she tries to find the truth, grieve her daughter, face her past and find the strength she needs to possibly raise the grandchild who may not survive. In Olivia’s chapters I felt like I was reading narration by my own teenagers. You could tell Olivia was a bright, sensible girl who just wanted her mother to lay off the helicopter parenting and give her a bit of freedom. When she was struggling with the realisation her mum had lied to her all her life it was heartbreaking as you saw her lose her faith in the one person she’d always relied on. The chapter where Olivia narrated the fall was harrowing for me, particularly when she describes her feelings of slipping away. It took the air from my lungs and was a reminder of the unnecessary tragedy of the loss of a young girl’s future.

The final chapters of this book and the epilogue were the most emotional for me. The writing was beautiful yet full of heartbreak. But there was also a joyfulness as Abi learned to love and live even after losing the daughter who had been her whole life for seventeen years. I felt a kinship with Abi as my own “baby” is just turning 15, two years younger than Olivia, I was a single parent for most of his life, and my own history meant I had to protect him from his father most of that time. Unlike Abi I chose appropriate truths and he knew who his father was,although I do understand why Abi made the decisions she did with Olivia’s father being an illicit relationship. The indescribable loss Abi felt when learning her child wasn’t going to wake up tore me in two. A life was taken far too soon and not only was it Olivia’s future that was stolen, but a part of many other people’s too.

The questions raised in the synopsis were the crux of this novel: how well do you know your children? How well do they know you? For me, it was a reminder that as our children get older we know them less and they know us better. When they’re young they don’t leave your side for a minute, there’s no privacy. Who they are is transparent and they often tell us their secrets without realising it. As they become teenagers our children become an enigma, a stranger made of our own flesh. They tell their secrets to their friends, have whole sides to their personality that are hidden.They start to carve out their own path and find their place in the world. Teenagers also suffer from the delusion that they know best and that adults are just out to ruin their fun or make life difficult. They forget we were once that age and my own teenagers are regularly shocked we know their next move or true motivation. I now find myself sounding like my own parents did all those years ago: ‘We were your age once you know’, or ‘You’ll understand when you’re a parent’. Such a cliche! But our children are having the opposite experience to us. When they were younger they thought their parents knew everything, could do no wrong, had life figured out and existed solely as their mum or dad. Now they are seeing through the illusion and realising we had lives before they were born, that we are our own person with a life separate to them, that we have faults and make mistakes, and we have no idea what we’re doing half the time. Some, like Olivia, find out their parent has lied to them their whole life and questioning everything they thought they knew.

The Night Olivia Fell is a sensational debut novel. The author had the perfect mix of suspense, drama, tragedy, heartbreak and joy that made this a book I would highly recommend.

Out now on kindle.

Out in paperback 7th March.

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