Originally published in 2020
On an island off the coast of Ireland, guests gather to celebrate two people joining their lives together as one. The groom: handsome and charming, a rising television star. The bride: smart and ambitious, a magazine publisher. It’s a wedding for a magazine, or for a celebrity: the designer dress, the remote location, the luxe party favors, the boutique whiskey. The cell phone service may be spotty and the waves may be rough, but every detail has been expertly planned and will be expertly executed[…]
And then someone turns up dead. Who didn’t wish the happy couple well? And perhaps more important, why?
The Guest List takes place on a remote but picturesque island off the coast of Ireland. The site is the location of the high profile wedding of trendy digital magazine publisher Jules Keegan and reality TV star Will Slater. The picture perfect couple seem to have arranged the best of everything and have gathered with friends and family to share their special day together. As the wedding approaches and the partying begins, secrets are revealed and resentments grow within the group. When a storm briefly knocks out the power a murder takes place but who is the killer and, equally importantly, who is the victim?
Foley employs a complex structure that mixes chapters set in the run up to that moment told from the viewpoints of several members of the wedding party (the wedding planner, the bride, the plus one, the bridesmaid and the best man) with chapters set in the present told in the third person. While this makes for a rather disorientating start to the novel, the benefits of that structure soon become clear.
The first of these is that Foley grants the reader clues as to where the story might be headed. There are a number of moments where we are given a glimpse of some item or a reference to something that will happen. This encourages the reader to compare past and present, notice the differences and question how the situation may have changed so rapidly.
The main advantage of this choice though is that Foley is able to manufacture several big revelations in the space of a few chapters towards the end as everything is brought together. The narrators in those first-person chapters do not always share everything they know and in a few cases, they simply lack the knowledge to tell us everything at that point in the story. Several characters have been keeping their secrets for a while and only share them in reaction to external events.
Foley is also careful to be extremely sparing in the details she shows us of the murder. We are given enough to convey an impression of what is going on – the story, the blood and the chaotic search for some missing people – but those images lack context. The reader will have to wait until past and present collide to have a full understanding of what has happened. That relates not only to the identity of the murderer but also their victim.
It is very hard to pace a story so that such an important detail as the identity of the victim is withheld until the end. It is an approach that could easily read as gimmicky. Foley manages to craft a situation however where there are multiple credible suspects no matter the identity of the victim.
One other thing I want to praise with regards the structure is the choice to use multiple narrators. This not only works very well for exploring different functions of that job, it also allows Foley to suggest something to us that one of his other narrators may be unaware of. The narrators make for an interesting mix of types which I will come onto in a moment and also make this a story that feels particularly suited for the audiobook format (each narrator has their own reader).
The other thing I really like about the way that the multiple narrator thing is realized here is that each chapter heading not only reminds us who the narrator is and when it is taking place, it also spells out their role within the party. I loved this as an approach, particularly when dealing with those early chapters where we were getting to know everyone.
Turning to the thematic content of the book, I think Foley does a fine job of exploring the idea that ‘boys will be boys’ and some of the mindset of wealth and priviledge and culture often found in British public schools. These themes also can be seen reflected in the very different backgrounds and personalities of the various narrators. References to the like of Lord of the Flies are dropped in, providing a little context and encouraging comparison. It’s not a very pretty sight…
Foley paces the various revelations that are made exceptionally well, creating a sense of growing tension as we prepare for the storm to hit and those lights to go out. There is a sense in those middle chapters that there is always some new information being discovered and because of the use of those first person perspectives, we have a strong sense of how those revelations are affecting each member of the wedding party.
Individually those stories are very powerful and thematically I think they fit well alongside each other but the reader will have to accept a significant amount of coincidence in how this situation is set up. I think, reflecting on the individual characters, that their choices are all credible and I could understand, given their personalities, why they didn’t always talk to each other or ask challenging questions.
There is one character however who lies at the intersection of these story threads that I think becomes harder to understand as we learn more about what has happened. I felt that the explanation of their backstory is, in contrast to many of the other characters, very simplistic. I suspect that is a feature, rather than a fault, of the novel – that our focus is meant to be on the affected rather than the perpetrator. I would not argue with anyone who feels that this important character feels a little two dimensional.
The point at which the individual narratives catch up to the action in the present is really powerful and sets up a really gripping conclusion. It is not an ending that really surprised me – I think Foley sets her story threads up well enough that by the point you reach that conclusion it will feel like the only fitting resolution – but the execution is very good and I have to say there is an aspect of the resolution that I really enjoyed.
The Verdict: I was very pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed The Guest List. It is a cleverly constructed thriller that executes its ideas and discusses its chosen themes well. For those who enjoy audio, I can strongly recommend the excellent audiobook.