The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell



ESoon after her twenty-fifth birthday, Libby Jones returns home from work to find the letter she’s been waiting for her entire life. She rips it open with one driving thought: I am finally going to know who I am. 

She soon learns not only the identity of her birth parents, but also that she is the sole inheritor of their abandoned mansion on the banks of the Thames in London’s fashionable Chelsea neighborhood, worth millions. Everything in Libby’s life is about to change. But what she can’t possibly know is that others have been waiting for this day as well—and she is on a collision course to meet them. 

Twenty-five years ago, police were called to 16 Cheyne Walk with reports of a baby crying. When they arrived, they found a healthy ten-month-old happily cooing in her crib in the bedroom. Downstairs in the kitchen lay three dead bodies, all dressed in black, next to a hastily scrawled note. And the four other children reported to live at Cheyne Walk were gone. 


Libby Jones gets an unexpected gift for her 25th birthday when she inherits a large house in Chelsea, however the house hold some dark secrets and Libby learns she was the only survivor of an apparent suicide/murder pact. The house at Cheyne Walk once belonged to the wealthy Lamb family who were society darlings, however the arrival of the Thomsen family changed their lives forever.

The enigmatic father, David Thomsen, doesn’t believe in wealth and under his influence the Lambs start to give away their prized possessions and their children, Henry and Lucy, can only watch in dismay as David slowly erodes their family dynamic. As David’s influence increases, the others in the house become virtual prisoners as no one is allowed to leave without his permission and the children are kept locked in their rooms if they dare to question his rules. It is the children of the house who see through David but their attempts to break free lead to tragedy.

The Family Upstairs has a rather misleading title because the Thomsen family have free reign over the entire house when they move in and eventually take over. We aren’t really given a proper explanation as to why the Thomsens moved into the house in the first place but David Thomson has penchant for ruining lives and the Lambs are his latest victims. The story is told from the point of view of three narrators, however it takes a while before the connection between them is revealed. The most straightforward narrative belongs to Libby who is trying to uncover the truth about the deaths of her parents and the disappearance of the children.

The second narrator is Lucy Smith, a single mother of two down on her luck in France, and desperate to return to England after a reminder on her phone alerts her to the fact “the baby” is now twenty-five. It is obvious the baby in question is Libby and we eventually learn Lucy is the daughter of the Lamb family who has been forced into hiding her real identity after running away from the Chelsea house. Libby’s birthday acts as a catalyst for Lucy’s return to Chelsea and she must face up to her own past.

The third narrative is initially not named and it written in the first person, however it is easy to work out that it is Henry and his point of view turns out to be the least trustworthy. From the start, Henry doesn’t trust the Thomsens even though he is attracted to the eldest son, Phinn, and he tries to get his parents to see sense but his mother is besotted by David and his father is imprisoned by his recent stroke. Henry is the one who galvanises the other teenagers into action but his motives aren’t as clear cut as they seem and he appears to be becoming increasingly unhinged by the situation.

The three narratives essentially work as the different timelines muddy the waters, however it also adds a lot of confusion which I found more infuriating than anything else. There are a lot of twists in the plot but they were easy to work out so they just confirm your thoughts rather than shocking you. The characters are also a problem because we only ever get to see the Thomsens from Henry’s point of view as Lucy’s narrative doesn’t cover what went on in the house. In the same respect, we learn next to nothing about Henry as an adult while we know mostly everything about how Lucy’s life turned out. Phinn and his sister are mostly ignored even though they play an important part in the story too.

Since Henry mistrusts David from the beginning, we don’t get to witness the charm he must have displayed to con his way into the Lamb household. According to Henry, Lucy was initially as glamour struck by David as their mother so it is a great pity we don’t get to see this for ourselves. I would have preferred to have had Lucy’s point of view in the same timeframe as Henry’s so we could have had a counter narrative and witnessed the moment David’s intentions became more sinister.

The effects of growing up in such an atmosphere are evident in both Lucy and Henry who have suffered in different ways and are much more alike as adults than even they realise. There’s a lot going on but the plot was rather uneven.