The Hours Before Dawn by Celia Fremlin (re-issue)

Faber & Faber
July 2017


A young mother feels her sanity slipping from sheer exhaustion. Her baby isn’t sleeping and her husband’s frustration nearly pushes her over the edge. To make ends meet, they take in a lodger. But when strange things begin happening, Louise and her husband both get the feeling they’ve seen this woman before. But where?


If you have children, you’ve experienced the sleepless nights and complete physical and mental exhaustion of keeping 24-hour vigils. You find yourself forgetting things, falling asleep standing up, unable to concentrate… It’s a special form of torture, parenting a newborn.

There’s also the strain it puts on a marriage, adding a spouse or partner who’s as or nearly as exhausted. In theory, a partner should half the load. Spoiler: it doesn’t. Rare is the couple that splits duty 50/50.

Like Louise Henderson from The Hours Before Dawn, I was left largely to shift for myself, my husband irritated postpartum depression left me unable to keep up with the house like he felt I should. I understand her plight all too well. On top of Mark Henderson’s impatience, he questions how they could even afford their third child, baby Michael, suggesting they take in a boarder to lighten the financial load.

When strait-laced schoolteacher Miss Brandon shows up in response to their ad, Louise immediately apologizes the room isn’t ready; there were odds and ends still scattered around she’d meant to tidy but hadn’t. A very self-assured Miss Brandon doesn’t bat an eye. Impatiently, she inquires when she could move in. Intimidated, Louise agrees the next day would be fine.

That same evening, Mark Henderson confronts Louise, asking if she’d let Miss Brandon know they had a screaming infant in the house. Begrudgingly, he accepts her response that yes, Miss Brandon was aware. Unappeased, he wonders how on earth anyone else could stand the noise.

His reaction concerns Louise:

Louise was conscious of an aching, helpless weariness; and as she glanced at her husband’s face, the tired lines more deeply drawn in the lamplight, she felt a tiny stab of fear. For the first time, she wondered: Does it sometimes happen like this? Do men sometimes stand up in the divorce court, tired and bewildered, and say simply “Yes, I still love my wife; yes, I still love my children; no, there isn’t another woman; it’s just that I can’t go on any longer without any sleep.

As time passes, both Mark and Louise have a strange feeling they recognize their lodger from somewhere else. But where? Inviting Mark up to her room, Miss Brandon cooks for him on her one-ring stove, while down below Louise hears their conversation and laughter. While not an attractive woman, Miss Brandon is well dressed and intellectual, certainly to give him her attention. She and Mark share intellectual interests he couldn’t talk about with his wife. She was jovial company; Louise was anything but.

Her suspicions mounting, the exhausted Louise lets her mind run to all sorts of scenarios. Was Miss Brandon after her husband? Who was she, really? Miss Brandon’s behavior becomes more and more odd. Telling Louise she was leaving for the day and wouldn’t be back until late, Louise walks into the room to find Miss Brandon sitting on her bed, staring vacantly.

What, exactly, was going on?

Louise descends into deeper exhaustion. Michael wakes her every night at the same time; she could set a clock by him. She begins to hallucinate from lack of sleep, then, to consider taking the baby out in the middle of the night for walks to calm him.

One night she finds herself lost, wandering the neighborhood:

… for the first time, she realised that she did not know where she was, nor in which direction lay her home. And she was tired; so tired that she no longer had any fear of the darkened street; so tired that for a moment she thought of sitting down, here on the pavement, with her back against the railings, and falling asleep.

As time wears on, Louise becomes more and more certain things aren’t right. Investigating, she finds confirmation of her fears among Miss Brandon’s things. Nothing was explicit, nothing spelled out, but the clues are ominous. She’s convinced Miss Brandon means them no good.

Continuing to follow the trail, Louise worries no one will take her seriously. She is, after all, exhausted, with a reputation for scattered behavior. Having embarrassed herself with the police once, would they believe her story? Realizing she’s racing against the clock, she knows she’s on the trail of something sinister.

Celia Fremlin sets up a terrifying scenario, a premise that’s frightening because it is believable. It stretches credulity a bit, but not so much it isn’t possible. And the reader can relate to Louise, understanding lack of sleep is playing with her mind, but there’s something very wrong going on in her house.

Though the novel isn’t as taut a thriller as a few published over the past couple of years, Fremlin does a fine job building suspense, seamlessly weaving in the subtlest humor with a delicate touch. She’s being championed and rightly so, brought back from obscurity.

An author who won the Edgar Award in the 1960s, her work stands up well in the 21st century. It’s obvious she’s not a contemporary writer; nevertheless, this novel is very much worth the read. Fans of early-mid century of suspense, especially, should enjoy the book.┬áIt kept me turning the pages, wondering what would become of Louise, if she’d figure out Miss Brandon’s secret before something awful happened. In a novel of suspense, this is exactly what’s expected.

The Hours Before Dawn is a well-written, entertaining and light read. Recommended.