“The Darkening Hour” Penny Hancock (Simon and Schuster) – novel review

The Darkening Hour Penny Hancock book cover

“The Darkening Hour” follows the stories of two desperate woman. On the surface Theodora is a successful radio host on the brink of promotion living in a large house in London and combining work with caring for her father, Charlie, who has Alzheimer’s, and providing a stable home for her adult son who is between jobs. But cracks are showing. She keeps Charlie to a strict routine and doesn’t relax it when any of her three siblings want to visit their father. She keeps him confined to his basement flat, rather than letting him in her main house. Theodora excuses her son’s idleness as depression but her ex-husband thinks his son should be at least trying to get a job. So a live-in carer seems to be a godsend, theoretically freeing Theodora to help her son into work, enjoy time with her married lover and focus on her career, ie enjoy the lifestyle she had before she divorced when she ran a household with servants and entertained.

Mona, the Moroccan carer, is initially shocked at how dirty the house is, how Leo, Theodora’s adult son, is allowed to sit around in the semi-darkness playing computer games, grazing on ready meals and smoking all day, and that her employer will waste money paying over the odds for food that’s cheaper in the local market, but will begrudge Mona taking a thimbleful of shampoo or an occasional sanitary product. It doesn’t take long for Mona to clean the house properly, get Leo into the habit of not smoking inside the house and start cooking meals from scratch. Thanks to Mona’s discipline, Leo finds a job, albeit one that Theodora thinks is below his status. Mona has told Theodora that she’s a widow because her husband is missing but believed to be in London. Mona sends her wages back home where her daughter is being looked after by her mother and her mother needs the money to pay for medical treatment. This leaves her without cash to pay for mobile phone credits or stamps to send letters home. Theodora gives Mona cash to pay for her father’s groceries so Mona economises and uses the spare for her own needs.

More cracks show in Theodora’s life. Mona’s friend, Amina, works for Theodora’s ex-husband and stories surface of what happened to a previous home-help at the hands of Theodora. The promotion isn’t forthcoming and Theodora is forced to re-apply for her job as redundancies loom at the radio station. She becomes ambivalent about her lover when she realises they only see each other on his terms and he has no intention of leaving his wife. Her father, Charlie, doesn’t remember her name anymore but remembers Mona’s. Theodora’s siblings complain that she’s playing the martyr. There are also hints that Theodora has helped herself to more than her fair share of their late mother’s possessions. The siblings see Theodora caring for their father as a temporary solution until they find him a suitable care home. Theodora doesn’t see it that way.

Mona finds that not only are her duties increasing – she was only supposed to clean for Charlie not for the rest of the household and Theodora has used Mona to do the cooking when entertaining friends – but she is not allowed any free time either. Theodora has purposely woken her up to go and deal with Charlie in the small hours and bought a baby monitor which Mona is supposed to keep on at all times so Charlie can call if he needs help. It’s not long before Mona finds herself at Theodora’s beck and call 24/7, working without any breaks.

With Leo’s help, Mona contacts Amina via Facebook and learns that the previous home-help is dead. Mona receives a lead on her husband’s whereabouts and arranges a meeting with someone who could tell her more. However Theodora demands Mona stay and work and Mona’s left with a choice, does she play it safe and obey Theodora or does she risk losing her right to stay in the UK in the hope of finding her husband again? When Mona discovers the previous home-help’s death was murder, she realises her life is in danger, but how can she escape? Theodora has taken her passport and visa and her status as domestic worker means she cannot work for another employer.

The story is told from both Theodora’s and Mona’s viewpoints so the reader is not guided to take sides but able to see the rights and wrongs of both women’s situations. Both women’s lives have parallels: loss of the main wage earner (through divorce in Theodora’s case; through tribal conflict in Mona’s), burden of providing for a family (voluntarily for Theodora – Leo could work and she didn’t have to take in her father; involuntarily for Mona whose mother’s failing eyesight means she can no longer work and Mona’s daughter is too young) and both pilfer through resentment (Theodora feels she’s entitled to her late mother’s possessions because she’s taken on responsibility for her father; Mona because Theodora treats her so badly).

Through the two woman, Penny Hancock explores issues surrounding foreign domestic workers. She pays particular attention to Mona’s lack of protection from Theodora’s exploitation of her and the attitudes that allow Theodora to justify her exploitation and make it seem acceptable. These issues are handled sensitively and without moralising. “The Darkening Hour” shines a torch into the murky world of contemporary slavery.

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