Mel is an overworked, overstressed recently single mother who lives in an apartment block in a gentrified beachside suburb of Sydney, Australia. She’s only just moving on from her ex-husband when the ghost moves into the upstairs apartment—a ghost from Mel’s past. Mel is soon utterly obsessed with the ghost upstairs and his new English backpacker girlfriend. Set during the 2020 pandemic, the lives of Mel and the couple upstairs become more and more intertwined, more connected, with horrifying consequences. Is there such a thing as going too far?
The Couple Upstairs by Holly Wainwright is a 2022 contemporary novel with psychological thriller, drama, and romance elements. I was recommended this book by my mum a while ago. I’ve been on an insane reading blitz this year, and requested a bunch of books on Borrowbox and Libby assuming they’d be available at different times, but alas, no. Suddenly I had nine books to read in a short period of time, which I’d be forced to read in order of due date rather than what I actually wanted to read first. Luckily, the first one was Headcase by Jack Heath, the latest in the delectably amazing Timothy Blake series. And it was pretty great. Then there was The Couple Upstairs, a decent read but largely forgettable. The last book I read in April was a total shitshow: book eight of the Phryne Fisher series, which was a slog that took me over a month to finally finish, and would have been a DNF had I not been listening to the audiobook.
So what does all this preamble—this preamble you likely didn’t read in your haste to scroll to the bottom of the page and check out my review for The Couple Upstairs—lead to? Well, it means that The Couple Upstairs was a complex book, a decent read, sandwiched in between a great book (Headcase—just shy of four stars) and a mediocre drag (Urn Burial—two stars).
Holly Wainwright’s novel has the vibe of a 2010s psychological thriller, with an unreliable fortysomething woman narrator like The Secretary by Renee Knight, but also feels like a contemporary romance, almost like it was written by a writer for Mamamia. Oh, wait. I started into this novel assuming “the ghost” was going to be an actual ghost; that maybe her ex, Dom, didn’t actually die, and was plotting revenge against Mel. It would have worked with the novel’s whole dialogue on intimate partner violence and emotional/psychological abuse, which I appreciated. However, the truth of Flynn, while not what I expected, was still a fascinating tale. Flynn shares a lot in common with Dom because they are both charming, good-looking men that don’t fit the typical profile of an abusive partner. Now, of course, we should realise that the real world isn’t like a child’s fairy tale or Marvel movie where all the good guys are hot and sexy and the villains are ugly, monstrous demons. This has been my pet peeve with all the people whinging that President Snow is being portrayed by a good-looking actor in the Hunger Games prequel, because “hburr durr you’re glamorising evil people by making them hot and attractive”. Now, what sort of stupid logic is that? All sorts of awful people throughout human history have gotten away with all sorts of horrific things, simply because they’re conventionally attractive. Attractiveness is not a marker for morality. Flynn is able to do the awful things he does to Lori and others because 1) He justifies the bad things he does, like that he’s not an attempted rapist so he’s all a-ok to do “lesser” bad things, and 2) He’s an attractive white guy. While Flynn and Dom are not “evil” per se, they are still not good men, and this is contrasted with the nontoxic behaviour of Mel’s ex. One can almost feel sorry for Flynn, he’s that charming, and Wainwright does a good job of showing the mindset of Flynn, alongside the female characters Mel and Lori. In Flynn’s head, he believes he’s not as bad as his stepfather, as the attempted rapist roommate, and the women in his life just don’t understand him. By the ending, the reader knows the truth.
While the novel’s awareness-raising of intimate partner violence is admirable, there are many problems I had that detract from a glowing five-star review. Mel really is a morally ambiguous character, quite terrible, not on the same level as Flynn, but I really didn’t like when the third-person narrative switched away from Lori or Flynn back to Mel. Now, I don’t need my characters to be likeable. I love a good book with a despicable protagonist. But throughout listening to the audiobook narrated by Annabelle Tudor, I had a nagging feeling, and the five-minute long acknowledgements at the end were a lightbulb moment. The protagonist feels like a stand-in for the author. Everything about Mel appears to be something about Holly Wainwright, but intensified: Children, British migrant, lived in a Coogee apartment. Now, I don’t know the author at all (I assume there’s no stalking beautiful dodgy neighbours IRL), but to me, the book felt like the author had the writing prompt: What if I began stalking my beautiful dodgy neighbour and weird shit started happening? Now, I know it’s set during lockdown, so that explains a lot. Being stuck in isolation (and I was in a state with stricter lockdown laws than New South Wales), there was probably a lot of time to daydream. I’ve stretched this part of the review out way longer than I intended, but the tl;dr is: Mel as a character felt like a bit of a Mary Sue. Considering the author is head of content for Mamamia, a girlboss website, it’s not shocking. The ending felt very 2010s white feminist, all girlboss, girl power. All very contrived. All very fanciful. It’s too neat. A manipulative narcissist in real life, especially an attractive white man, could easily sow dissent, start a movement that Lori, his victim, is actually the bad guy. Australia has very strong defamation laws: knowing Flynn’s character, he could take Lori to the cleaners, destroy her new life with her new girlfriend. Lori’s final relationship is a sweet conclusion, and I was so glad Wainwright decided to turn that trope around so wonderfully—I was honestly fooled about [Jesus, I’ve already forgotten her name], and it was nice to see her true loyalties were towards Lori the whole time.
By the way, Mel really is an awful character. I started off liking her: she’s trying to move from a divorce, she’s trying her best to be a good parent unlike her husband. But the ending kinda paints a different picture of Mel: her ex-husband seems to be the only decent major male character. Mel is constantly screaming and shouting at her kids, which Wainwright justifies as Mel’s stress dealing with her new life, but really is just likely good old emotional abuse. Mel hates Flynn because, deep down, she’s just like him. He’s the ghost of Mel’s awful ex-boyfriend, who projects the worst of Mel right back at her. The fact the kids are thrilled for Lori to babysit them because it means Mum’s gone away is a terrible red flag. Mel has a saviour complex, she tries so hard to help Lori, even to Lori’s detriment. Wainwright acknowledges this: she eventually realises she’s just projecting her own insecurities about her dying brother-in-law halfway across the world onto someone else so she doesn’t have to deal with what a wreck of a person she is. She makes utterly ridiculous decisions regarding Lori and Flynn, and because she’s a privileged white woman, she gets away with it, and even proudly admits that to us, the reader. She’s like Kate Austen in Lost, an absolutely awful character with little regard for others, who’s portrayed as a “good” person merely because she’s the protagonist, and as we all know, protagonists have to be the good guys, right?
The Couple Upstairs by Holly Wainwright deftly tackles a topic that should never be shied away from, with intriguing, unlikeable characters. However, the main character is illogical, awful while being portrayed more positively than she really should, and has a lot in common with the antagonist. The ending is sudden, contrived, totally unrealistic, but one character’s romantic development is a welcome conclusion. I can’t say I loved this book, but it fulfilled its promise of a dramatic, readable novel set during a time period that only adds to the suspense.