Isobel lives an isolated life in North London, where she works at a nearby library. She feels safe, so long as she keeps to her routines and doesn't let her thoughts stray too far into the past. But a newspaper photograph of a missing local schoolgirl and a letter from her old teacher send her spiraling and bring back the trauma of what happened years ago, when she was a pupil at The Schoolhouse.
The Schoolhouse is a legit crime thriller: stylish, pacey and genuinely frightening ... Ward manages her thickly plotted story well, alternating Carter’s no-nonsense narration with extracts from 11-year-old Isobel’s diary from 1975. Police reports and newspaper clippings are sandwiched into the prose, primed for snarfing by readers hungry for clues ... Ward is fond of short, staccato sentences... and mini mid-chapter cliff-hangers. There’s even something close to a jump-scare, which is not a device I would have thought could translate from screen to page ... There are moments where Ward’s style clashes with the requirements of the genre; she likes to introduce characters subtly, sparingly, which means the cast of police officers are difficult to differentiate. Her tendency to withhold on backstories left me longing for more on Carter’s personal life and mysterious childhood. Yet perhaps my taste has been spoilt by a diet of crime stories propped up by tired tropes about detectives’ romantic woes.
Sally Carter’s narrative sticks closely to the genre principles of the police procedural, not only in form but in flavour. While Ward’s prose is consistently crisp, the guarded Carter feels all too familiar, the distillation of a hundred cops from books and television shows ... The woman behind the surname remains frustratingly opaque. It is into Isobel – and, in particular, Isobel as a child – that Ward pours her considerable insight and humanity ... The Schoolhouse accelerates towards an improbably overcooked conclusion. It is a pity because, behind the Line of Duty-esque noise and fury, this novel has much to say about childhood and, in particular, the failures by adults in authority to protect the children in their care.
Isobel’s diary is an effective device, not least for the poignantly childlike detail with which it allows her to record her encounters with the fifteen-year-old Jason ... There are dangerous men everywhere in this novel, and at least one murder, and it is a shame that Ward seems considerably less captivated by the various police officers trying to solve the crimes than she is by the criminals who have committed them. The Schoolhouse is at its best when tapping into the vulnerability and indignation of the young Isobel, who reads Jane Eyre and decides: 'I wanted to make everyone in the book say sorry to Jane'.