Thursday, 10 January 2019

Book review : The Watcher - Ross Armstrong

The Watcher by Ross Armstrong is a book that I grabbed off my bookshelf over Christmas. I'm not sure where it came from - probably a charity shop find - but I wanted to delve into something that I had actually chosen to read, not that I was obliged to read for a review, over the Christmas holidays. I read some on the train down to see my sister-in-law in the West of France, then read some more at my parents' home in Sussex, then finished it off this week, now that I'm back at work. Sometimes I was a bit confused by what I was reading and how it all fitted together, but I'm not entirely sure if that came from the story itself or my busy lifestyle during the holidays !

The story is narrated by Lily Gullick, a middle-aged woman who lives with her husband Aiden and spends a lot of her time peering out of her window into the homes of her neighbours in the tower block opposite. She calls herself a birdwatcher and labels the beginning of each chapter with details about her different sightings, although it is soon revealed that this is actually just code-talk for her neighbours. 

Each chapter begins with a countdown - "7 days till it comes", "42 days till it comes", ... - but the reader has absolutely no idea what we are counting down to. With this and the initially incomprehensible bird-watching notes, full of initials and abbreviations, I was wrong-footed and couldn't work out where we were heading. I think this state of confusion and lack of clear objectives is supposed to give us an insight into Lily's state of mind, but it left me feeling annoyed, as I always like to be one step ahead of the game and work out what will be going on right from the early pages of a book (even if I end up being completely wrong).

Lily is excessively voyeuristic and this left me feeling uneasy. She has strange, secret meetings with Jean, one of her elderly neighbours, and also has a weird habit (with a hastily explained logic) of pretending to be a doctor. Once Jean has been killed and she is convinced that her neighbour is up to no good, she doesn't think twice about breaking into his flat, leaving a bug and, all for good measure, having a run-in with the local bad boys on the estate. This didn't really help me to trust or build up a rapport with the narrator.

Two thirds of the way in, everything changes. There is a big announcement that changes the way that you've read everything up until then. With her own observations and logic seriously put into doubt, it is hard to readjust and work out where the story is going. Things do soon pick up again though, and the closing chapters are intense and nerve-wracking. Some of the details in the final chapter - such as the wrecking ball and the nail-biting wait in the rancid skip, for example - seemed a bit overdone, and I couldn't help but wonder if everything that I was reading was true or if Lily was over-thinking things again. It turns out that she is a bit of a hero though, despite her tricky past, and all things come good in the end.

 The fact that Lily is the first-person narrator doesn't give you the sense of distance that a more level-headed, external narrator would have offered, but it was an interesting read, even if at times I felt a bit wrong-footed.

star rating : 4/5

RRP : £7.99

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: HQ; First edition edition (21 Sept. 2017)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780008181178
  • ISBN-13: 978-0008181178
  • ASIN: 0008181179


  1. It might be confusing, but I also find the book very intriguing from your description. I'll keep an eye on it, and see if I can spot it in The Works, though God knows, I really should stop buying books for a while. My piles of books are growing, and I don't even remember what I've bought already.

    1. I was very good over Christmas and didn't buy any new books at all ... until I came across some for £1 in WH Smiths !!

  2. Margaret Clarkson
    Thank you for your excellent review. I like thrillers but from your review I don't think this one appeals. First person narration can be tricky and the plot sounds rather confusing.

  3. Sounds like a good read, will add it to my list

  4. Sounds a good book

  5. This sounds like quite a confusing read, but still intriguing.


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