‘What are you like with enclosed spaces?’ Tom asks his sister Billie before they head into the maze of tunnels under Paris. Away from the ‘tourist bit’ of the catacombs – the part filled with bones moved from the city’s cemeteries – is an extensive network of claustrophobic pathways beneath the everyday, visible level of the city. As the setting for the climax of Imogen West-Knights’s subtle and compelling debut Deep Down, it is certainly fitting: in the wake of their father William’s death, the siblings begin to explore hidden and submerged memories from their childhood.
The two are not close. Billie, who has a ‘plain, mashed potato sort of face’, lives in London, while Tom (a failed actor, whose only success was in a Christmas advert) has moved to Paris to work in a bar. After their father’s sudden death in America, where he was living with his new wife, the pair come together.
What initially seem to be the hallmarks of any repressed family – an inability to discuss death; tensions between divorced parents; a repeated insistence that everyone is ‘fine’ – become, as the novel unfolds, something far more disconcerting. William was not just angry; he was abusive. The violence at home is seen through the eyes of the siblings as children. There are scenes of ‘goo spattered all over the floor’, interrupted by a policeman ‘wearing a chunky black vest thing’, and dramatic arguments where the most tragic result is a lack of ice creams ‘in the shape of Sonic the Hedgehog’. These domestic dramas are quietly devastating.
Alongside this narrative of a family torn apart is another theme. West-Knights considers the oddities of modern life for people in their twenties and thirties – from sharing a rented flat with a girl who once threw ‘farewell drinks before going on a three-week holiday’, to endless obligatory debates about the best Tesco meal deal.