Tag Archives: short books

Review: The Turn of the Screw and Daisy Miller

CW: death, ghosts, vague hints of child molestation or other unspecified activities of the sort, sexism, general upper-class snobbishness

I found a vintage edition of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw and Daisy Miller some time ago and have long thought that both stories in this volume sounded perfectly appealing to me. But it wasn’t until learning this year that Ruth Ware’s The Turn of the Key (which I intend to read) might loosely connect to James’s classic, and the second season of Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House (which I intend to watch) is also based on Bly Manor from The Turn of the Screw, that I was finally motivated to pick up this slim Gothic volume.

theturnofthescrewanddaisymiller In The Turn of the Screw, a new governess is hired to care for the two young children residing at Bly Manor; the deaths of their parents has left them in the care of an uncle who has no interest in raising children, and has instructed the governess to oversee them without contacting him for any reason. The governess is charmed by the uncle and the children, and wishes to comply, but two issues complicate the matter. The first is the boy’s unexplained expulsion from his boarding school. The second is the appearance of two figures around the house, who appear to be the ghosts of deceased former employees at Bly. The governess does her best to keep the household running smoothly, but soon discovers she’s in over her head.

“An unknown man in a lonely place is a permitted object of fear to a young woman privately bred.”

By far the longer piece in this volume, The Turn of the Screw is formatted as a ghost story dictated by the governess (dead by the time this story is shared) and read aloud to a group of eager listeners safe around their own fireplace. This framing device seemed a bit unnecessary (and outdated- originally published in 1898) to me, as the governess’s unexplained death doesn’t seem to add anything of import to the tale of her life, nor are these background listeners crucial to the story in any observable way.

As for the governess’s account, it is atmospheric and eerie almost from the get-go, her fear and tension apparent in every chapter. Interestingly, what she is afraid of remains vague and nameless through the book. It appears that she is not afraid of the ghosts, nor of the children, but rather the fact that the ghosts appear to the children. Her every seemingly ordinary interaction with them is disected into what the governess sees as horrifying implications: whether the children are aware of the ghosts, whether they know the governess is aware of them, whether they are concealing interactions with the ghosts from her, etc. It’s all very unsettling, but the reader must do a bit of guesswork to make meaning of it. For example, one particular “horror” is the governess’s realization that the two ghosts, while alive, were having an affair that the children may have been aware of. No further information is given- are we to assume the children were somehow made complicit in this affair, somehow involved inappropriately in the adults’ exploits? For the governess’s fright to be taken seriously, the reader must find some sort of significance in this revelation (one of many), into which no further insight is granted by the narration.

As a result, the themes of the story are a bit muddled, and perhaps more than desirable is left up to the reader’s own intuition. Immediately upon finishing this story, I thought it made little sense. As the days passed, however, I found my thoughts continually returning to this puzzling story, and came to appreciate that The Turn of the Screw can be read two ways: straightforwardly, as a ghost story in which supernatural forces are at play and manipulating the living; or psychologically, as an examination of the governess’s mental health with the possibility that her interactions with the children reveal increasing paranoia rather than ghosts. I appreciated this story more with time, as I was able to look at the plot as a whole and examine it from several different angles, each as plausible as the next. I came to see its lack of concrete answers as a strength, rather than a weakness, though I do think it’s a book to be applauded for its ambiguity rather than any particular perspective that might be found within.

In Daisy Miller, we leave the ghosts behind for a satirical sort of romance.

A young man (named Winterbourne) leaves his studies for a brief visit to his aunt in another city. While there, he meets a girl named Daisy Miller, a polite but unconventional person whose family possesses enough money to allow them to do as they like, without much reproach. Though most see her as an “uncultured” American, Winterbourne nonetheless follows her to Italy during the winter holiday. Though he likes her, he doesn’t seem to understand that he can’t fit her into a traditional relationship; his desire for her company and his sense of propriety compete for precendence, to disastrous effect.

“Winterbourne wondered how she felt about all the cold shoulders that were turned towards her, and sometimes it annoyed him to suspect that she did not feel at all. He said to himself that she was too light and childish, too uncultivated and unreasoning, too provincial, to have reflected upon her ostracism, or even to have perceived it. Then at other moments he believed that she carried about in her elegant and irresponsible little organism a defiant, passionate, perfectly observant consciousness of the impression she produced.”

I found Daisy Miller much more immediately engaging and thematically rich. Daisy is wonderfully outspoken and sure of herself, a character that has truly stood the test of time (this story was originally published in 1878). Though there is very little plot, Winterbourne’s gradual shift of opinion is fascinating- even humorous- to follow. When he arrives in Italy, he goes first to visit another woman, so as not to appear too eager to see Dasiy. When he does see her, he’s annoyed to discover that she’s become close friends with another man. Daisy (and James’s narration) notes this double-standard and doesn’t let him get away with it. In the end, Winterbourne will learn the truth Daisy has been enacting all along- that some things are more important than society’s opinion. Much to my delight, it presents as a bleak rather than trite case of “lesson learned.”

The only downside to Daisy Miller, on the tail of The Turn of the Screw, is that while thought-provoking, Daisy doesn’t require nearly as much contemplation upon completion. It’s messages are more readily apparent, and easier to file away.

In this sense, the two stories in this volume read rather opposite for me- I wasn’t won over by The Turn of the Screw until I could mull over the full story and draw my own conclusions, whereas Daisy Miller convinced me immediately but didn’t hold my attention long afterward. Together though, they make for an intriguing- if unusual- pair, and I’m glad to have finally read them both!

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Individually, I’d rate these each the same, which makes a cumulative rating convenient this time around. I don’t think I’ve ever read Henry James before, but I enjoyed the experience enough that I’ve now added his Portrait of a Lady to my TBR.

 

The Literary Elephant

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Review: Animals Eat Each Other

I hadn’t heard of Elle Nash’s Animals Eat Each Other before reading the succinct and compelling review that Callum wrote about it last month, but it sounded like just the sort of brief, bizarre, and hard-hitting story that’s been working so well for me this year. I couldn’t miss it. (And if this book sounds at all interesting, you can’t miss Callum’s review!)

animalseateachotherIn the novel, “Lilith,” not long out of high school, is working with an old friend at a RadioShack. One day an enigmatic couple enters the store, and the friend persuades “Lilith” to show them her latest tattoo. Later, “Lilith” is told that the pair is interested in her, and she goes to their apartment to meet them again. Mark and Frankie name her Lilith and adopt her as their girlfriend, treating her more like a pet than an equal. As she becomes more involved with them, she grows less certain of herself.

“All I could think about was how I was not like these people, and how that was bad. I wanted to feel part of something. I wanted Frankie to like me so badly. I was ready to mold myself into what she wanted.”

At its core, this slip of a novel is an examination of identity; how we define who we are, how other people can change our sense of self, what is left of us in times when those powerful influences are not present. “Lilith,” our first person protagonist who reveals no name for herself beyond what Mark and Frankie bestow upon her, is only nineteen and at a perfect point in her life for a crisis in self-discovery. Most of the cast is around the same age, floating between legal adulthood (18) and the legal age for alcohol consumption (21- US); they are more or less all leaning on each other… some leaning a little harder than others.

“I spent so much of my life doing what everybody asked me that I wasn’t even sure what I wanted anymore, if I wanted anything, if I had needs at all.”

The book opens with an intense glimpse into Lilith’s sex life with Matt and Frankie; it’s a grim but memorable moment that sets the tone for everything that will follow. It did leave me a bit worried that Lilith’s account of this period of personal exploration might deteriorate into explicit gratuity, but fortunately this is not the case. Nash keeps the focus consistently on the protagonist’s emotional and mental state, displaying behaviors primarily as a means of characterization and development. There is no denying the narration’s brutal honesty, but it’s handled shrewdly. In fact, there were a few instances in which I had to double check the MC’s age, such is the level of her self-awareness. She may be confused about what she’s gotten into and where it will end for her, but she does recognize that a major change is taking place and is often able to pinpoint what unsettles her.

One thing I found particularly interesting about this story is that while her  experiences with Matt and Frankie clearly alter our protagonist, it seems equally clear that her shaky sense of identity runs deeper than this questionable relationship. Well before meeting Matt and Frankie, she’s tattooed the backs of her thighs with a slogan she’s not sure has ever fit her. She began sleeping with her boss only to tick off a box on a list of taboos. She took a job because her mother prodded her to, and chose the RadioShack because her friend was able to get her a position there. It seems as though Lilith has been waiting a long time for someone to tell her what to do and who to be; she’s uniquely suited for this story. If Matt and Frankie had approached anyone other than this girl they’ve managed to shape as their Lilith, it’s hard to believe that things would have escalated to the level that they do.

“I was an object in her eyes. I was a tool. Every time I heard the name Lilith, pieces of me slipped and gave way underneath her perception of me.”

The only other element that curbed my enthusiasm for this book was the writing- I just didn’t quite get on with Nash’s style. Though I tabbed over a dozen brilliant lines and passages in this 120-page volume, there were plenty of places where it felt to me like the narration was trying a bit too hard to be taken as profound. Furthermore, I thought it relied a little too heavily on telling rather than showing in a way that might have been avoided if the piece had been given a bit more length; some of my favorite concepts and observations in the narration came as quick comments and then were left behind, where I would have appreciated further expansion. The plot is fairly predictable, which shouldn’t matter too much in a character study like this, but when a character takes center stage in this way I hope for a full exploration, to an extent I didn’t quite find here.

But overall, I did find the story compulsively readable. It’s main theme- that people destroy each other- will stick with me, as will some of the more vivid details. There’s one scene, in which Frankie displays her power over Lilith in a very public way at the local WalMart, that will particularly haunt me.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I’m still debating between a 3 and 4 star rating here, and may change this number as I let it settle more firmly in my mind. Though it didn’t have quite as strong an effect on me as I was hoping for based on its early chapters, this was nevertheless a captivating and read that left quite an impression. I’m glad I picked it up, and would certainly be curious to check out more from this author if she were to publish again.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Fever Dream

This was the first year I’ve followed along with The Morning News’ Tournament of Books, and as I’d already read the winner (My Sister the Serial Killer– so glad it won!) and its top contender (Warlight– so glad it didn’t win!) I decided to pick up last year’s winner. Samanta Schweblin, also longlisted for the Man Booker International this year for a newer release, wrote last year’s ToB winner, Fever Dream. 

feverdreamIn the novella, a mother and her young daughter have taken a trip to the countryside. They’re staying in a rented house in a small village, where they meet a local woman who shares an odd story about her son. The two children play together, much to their mothers’ fright, but the disaster that occurs soon after can only be linked to the boy’s strange past by those willing to walk the line between reality and impossibility.

“Where is Nina? What happens at the exact moment? Why is all this about worms?”

The book opens on a conversation about a sensation of worms in the body. Our  narrator (the woman on vacation) is already lying in a hospital bed at the local clinic, in critical condition. She is speaking to David, her new acquaintance’s son, who may or may not actually be present. Together they discuss the events of the previous few days in an attempt to locate the “exact moment.”

This is more or less all I can say with certainty about the story, as much of it is confusing and mysterious and left to the reader’s interpretation. Which, honestly, is just the way I like it. I became so engrossed in this little book that I finished the whole thing in one sitting, through which I maintained such a level of concentration that I forgot to tab quotes or make any review notes or any of those other reading-adjacent tasks I normally do. There are no chapters, and no breaks in the narration as the story races to its conclusion, but it’s compulsively readable and the constant need to know more about the situation drives the reader ever onward. Perhaps best of all, the ending is not a clarification and the reader is given the chance to draw their own conclusions.

Why do mothers do that? … Try to get in front of anything that could happen- the rescue distance.

It’s because sooner or later something terrible will happen. My grandmother used to tell my mother that, all through her childhood, and my mother would tell me, throughout mine. And now I have to take care of Nina.”

Thematically, I would say this is a story of family; of what we would do or risk for those we love, and whether those choices are worth their cost. Our narrator constantly calculates a “rescue distance” to ensure her daughter’s safety- the length of time it would take her to reach her daughter at any given moment, should disaster strike. But in the end, horror can strike in any place, at any time, no matter how near your child may be, as both women at the heart of this story discover.

There’s also a striking bit of commentary here about the difficulties of raising children (or living at all) in areas with environmental dangers (whether they’re natural or caused by humans), especially in scenes where our narrator notices local children with deformities and calls David “more normal” than the other children his age, despite what she’s been told of his history.

David was the only element of this book that held me back from a 5-star rating- I found his dialogue a bit jarring and grating at times, and would have appreciated fewer interjections from him throughout the story. I didn’t have any trouble remembering he was there or the conversational format through which this story was being told- I simply didn’t need the constant reminders. But this was a small issue; overall I loved Schweblin’s writing and her command of this completely bizarre story.

It’s a challenging puzzle of a read, one I would love to have spoiler discussions about because I think there are several options to choose from in trying to piece together what has actually happened to these characters. I wasn’t sure what to think when I first closed the cover, but I appreciate books that keep me thinking after I’ve put them down, and after much consideration I’ve formed some opinions. Even so, I will probably want to reread this soon; I think Fever Dream would be one of those excellent stories with as much (or more) to offer the reader on a second pass as the first time through. If you’re a reader who is routinely disappointed or even annoyed by predictable plots, Fever Dream may be the book for you. It’s atmospheric, eerie, and utterly engaging.

“I don’t want to spend another night in the house, but leaving right away would mean driving too many hours in the dark. I tell myself I’m just scared, that it’s better to rest so tomorrow I can think about things more clearly. But it’s a terrible night.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Some of my favorite books this year have been mysterious/experimental novellas- Ghost WallMy Sister the Serial Killer, and now Fever Dream. This wasn’t quite a top favorite forever-love read, but it did confirm that I must read more of Schweblin’s work, probably starting with the Man Booker International nominee Mouthful of Birds (which I think is the only other title she has published that’s been translated into English?)

What’s the weirdest book you’ve read this year?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Looker

I’ve read two books widely classified as “thrillers” so far this year, and it’s probably telling to admit that the one I liked the most was the one that felt the least like a true thriller. I was drawn to Laura Sims’s debut, titled Looker, for its similar placement on the edge of the genre.

lookerIn the novel, an unnamed woman’s obsession with her neighbor (“the actress”) grows as her life begins to collapse. She hasn’t been able to conceive, her husband has left her, and she’s digging herself into some trouble at work. In an effort to push away all the complications that weigh her down, the actress becomes more and more of a fixation for this woman.

Much like Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister the Serial Killer, Sims’s Looker is a captivating little novel (only 180 pages!) with thriller elements, though classifying it as a traditional, full-blooded thriller would be to its detriment. Rather, Looker is a psychologically-driven character study of one unnamed woman’s mental deterioration over the course of a few weeks.

Though much is made of our narrator’s preoccupation with the actress- and indeed this facet of the “plot” bookends the story- it is only a side-effect of the greater issue here: the woman’s frustration with her inability to conceive a child of her own. Years ago, she and her husband moved to this neighborhood full of families-in-the-making, close to a park, with the spare room of their apartment a permanent nursery-in-progress. If at times Looker seems confused about what sort of book it is trying to be, that may come down to the fact that our narrator focuses on the actress in order to avoid what is truly on her mind.

” ‘A kid, do you have a kid?’ She’s looking at me intently now. Careful now, careful. ‘No,’ I say. ‘I don’t.’ I try to say it lightly, breezily, like it doesn’t mean a thing, like it isn’t weighed down with the agony of years of trying, of my lost marriage, of the terrible emptiness of that extra room, but I fail. Sadness and the bitterness of failure lodge in the back of my throat, and I see that she has seen it. Sensed it. I panic.”

Looker brims with potential. There are so many feminist undertones layered into the story with varying degrees of subtlety; the woman notes feeling blamed for her inability to conceive- by her husband, her doctor, her community- as well as for her impending divorce; she feels fiercely the hypocrisy of her boss lecturing her for a transgression he has committed himself. But all of this is tainted by the fact that she is essentially going crazy because she can’t have a child. The kicker is that it’s unclear whether she wants one for any reason other than the fact that she can’t conceive. Unlikeable characters can certainly be compelling in their own way, but this woman seems contrary for the sake of being contrary, always wanting what she doesn’t have and quickly tiring of what is within her grasp. What should have been a moving and tragic situation becomes a bit absurd when the reader realizes how uncomplicated the situation is. We learn early not to trust much that this woman says, even within her own thoughts, though Sims never uses the misdirection that should be possible through such a lack of trust to any advantage.

But disappointments aside, this is a fast-paced stunner of a book that could easily be read in one sitting (though technically I read it in two because I “sampled” about 20 pages the day before I was actually intending to read the book). Sims allows for white space between paragraphs and proper breaks between scene shifts, but there are no chapters. It is hard to stop once you’ve started. The story takes a detour in the middle when an incident at school (our narrator is a professor in a dwindling college English department) pushes the actress out of focus for a time, but Sims does not loose track of where the plot is headed. When the final act spins out on the page, it manages to hit that sweet spot right between surprising and inevitable.

“How does one get to live such a charmed life? How does one get to literally have it all? It strikes me as funny- that billions of us should be schlepping along, some of us barely surviving, while one person gets to be praised and lifted up by eternal light.”

I was left with one major curiosity: how the woman’s relationship with her husband ended. She thinks about him often and he does make a couple of small appearances, but much of their relationship is left mysterious. It is clear that this woman’s take on events is not necessarily a fair depiction of things, but I think Sims missed an opportunity by avoiding showing what the final straw was for this couple, as it seems to have marked the beginning of the narrator’s madness.

Nevertheless, Looker is certainly engrossing and unique as-is, a debut full of promise for what Sims might have in store. Anyone looking for (whether you know it or not) an unusual, thriller-like vignette will find this an intriguing read.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Though this one was dark and fun to read, I predict that it will turn out to be rather forgettable. Looker has a lot of potential, but there’s something a bit distasteful to me about a woman going crazy because she can’t have a baby, and being jealous of another woman as a result. But this is Sims’s first novel, and it certainly holds enough promise that I’ll be interested to see where her writing goes next.

 

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Review: The Test

I usually try not to let length determine what I read, but there’s something so irresistible about a short book that you know you can finish in a single sitting. Yesterday I (temporarily!) abandoned a 600+ page novel in favor of not one but two single-sitting books… the one that completely stunned me was Sylvain Neuvel’s brand new slim volume, The Test.

thetestIn the novella, Idir goes to take a UK citizenship test that will either grant his entire family permission to stay in London, or get them deported. After making his way past some unpleasant people in the immigration office, he sits down to take a written 25-question multiple-choice test. A disruption in the room changes everything.

“Those who fail […] wake up on an aeroplane with their whole family, mild to severe memory loss, and the headache of the century. They never learn what happened.”

“I’ve put people on the plane, and it’s not as pretty as what the brochure says. He’ll forget everything that happened, that’s for sure. He’ll also forget he has a dog, or where he went to school. He might forget what he likes for breakfast, how much he loves his wife. He won’t be the same man.”

That’s really all you want to know of the plot going in, so I won’t say more about that.

What’s obvious from the beginning is that Idir is an endearing man worthy of any citizenship, and that he is about to fall victim to a deeply flawed system. In a few short chapters, Neuvel examines both Idir’s experience with this absurdly challenging citizenship test and a trainee’s experience with running it. Though the horrors in Idir’s chapters are somewhat expected once the reader understands the way this book operates, the cold reasoning revealed in Deep’s chapters lends satirical depth to the situation.

“Studies show that the vast majority of subjects recover completely given the right medication…”

By far the most compelling facet of the story is the way that the moderators of the test rationalize their actions and the very existence of the citizenship test in this form. Morality is a science to them with distinct right and wrong answers, and every action is quantified; the rule book is law and leaves no room for emotion. In this way, though Neuvel’s dystopian-style citizenship test is not the experience real immigrants face, he still manages an effective criticism of a recognizable process.

In only 104 pages, The Test contains a surprising number of twists and doesn’t refrain from stomping on the reader’s heart. I, for one, will be recommending this little gem widely.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I think if I had read this at another time (read: not at 1 am) or under other circumstances (read: not as a much-needed break in the midst of a long book that’s not as exciting as I’d hoped it would be) this may have been a 4 star read, due to a certain level of predictability. But as it was, I had a 5-star time while reading it! I may have to bump Sleeping Giants up my TBR.

 

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Mini-Reviews: Faber Stories

There are 20 short stories individually bound in a(n adorable) collection of Faber Stories that was released in the UK earlier this year. I read Sally Rooney’s Mr. Salary from the collection back in January and talked about it a little in my wrap-up for the month, but now I’ve read three more and they’re so short that I’ll just talk about them all together  here.

faberstories1

Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom by Sylvia Plath. 3 stars. This is a story just published for the first time in 2019, although the introduction to the story mentions that another heavily-changed version has been published previously. This is the original, from Plath’s college days. It features a girl whose parents have sent her on a train with a ticket for the Ninth Kingdom; throughout the journey, the girl (Mary) makes a friend and considers where she will end up when the train reaches the end of its line in the Ninth Kingdom.

It’s been a while since I’ve read any Plath, and I was excited to get back into her writing, which may have skewed my expectations a bit. But even with my hopes way up, this story started out great. There’s a wonderful level of detail that’s just at the edge of ordinary and odd, and that mysteriousness kept me invested in the story.

Though the theme of the story does become clear in the end- a child’s grab for independence rewarded- there is so much left uncertain. What is the Ninth Kingdom? Who is Mary’s travel companion, and why do the rules not seem to apply to her? Why was Mary being sent away in the first place?

Though I enjoyed the weird imagery and the compelling sense of doom created by the train’s progress, I was hoping for some of the sinister hints to be realized in a more dramatic way; instead, the story veers aside, avoiding the impending chaos. Though it made sense with the point Plath seemed to be making, it also felt like a missed opportunity and I was left wanting a bit more.

The Inner Room by Robert Aickman. 4 stars. This story was originally published in 1988 in a collection of “strange stories,” and “strange” is certainly an apt descriptor for this one. It’s about a girl who is given a dollhouse that does not open and inspires some bizarre dreams/experiences. Years later, the same character has a very different encounter with the same house.

It took me longer to get into this one, as I was eagerly awaiting the appearance of the dollhouse and the hallucinations/dreams/supernatural elements mentioned in the story’s synopsis, but the story is slow to start. I thought the introduction to the story could have been abbreviated much further without losing anything, but it’s possible the family’s background and the car trouble that opens the story has more importance than I grasped.

But by the end, I quite liked this weird little tale and was also sufficiently creeped out, which I’m counting as a success. Gothic narratives are so eerie and fun, and though the build-up was a bit slow here, I liked the way it all came together in the end. My only qualm is that I wanted to know more about the dollhouse. Where it had come from, where it went after it left the girl’s possession, why her mother reacted to it the way that she did. Fortunately, these curiosities seemed less vital than the loose ends that nagged at me after reading Mary Ventura, so this was an improvement in my Faber Story reading experience.

Paradise by Edna O’Brien. 4 stars. A break from the horror/thrills. This story is narrated by a woman who has accompanied her lover on holiday, where she feels outside of the group of his rich friends. While the others go out in the boat, she takes swimming lessons in the pool; she is expected to give a demonstration of her swimming later in the summer, which is a test not only of her prowess in the water but her worthiness of the group.

This is the story I liked the most of this batch. The narrator never tells the reader outright how much is riding on her ability to swim by the end of the summer, and the other guests are cordial to her on the surface; but her thoughts and the letters she writes (but never sends) show the depth of her situation deftly. There’s a beautiful examination of the divide between the haves and the have-nots, and the way that wealth (or lack thereof) alienates.

The only aspect I didn’t appreciate was the writing style- O’Brien has a great sense for what should be spoken and what should be implied, but she uses so many sentence fragments. I can’t stand the choppiness that comes with sentence fragments, and it took me several pages of begrudging reading to get into the flow of O’Brien’s writing enough to look past them and just enjoy the shape of the overall story.

“We do not know what we feel at the time and that is very perplexing.”

Concluding thoughts: These stories definitely whet my reading appetite for more Plath (I think I’m going to try some of her poetry next) and Aickman (I must check out more of his “strange stories”); I’m on the fence about reading more O’Brien, because while I loved the essence of Paradise I’m afraid that I’ll have similar struggles with her writing style. Conversely, in a longer piece it’s possible that I would be able to get used to the style early enough in the story to enjoy the reading experience more. And it’s certainly possible that others of her works don’t include the abundance of sentence fragments that Paradise does. It might be worth looking into.

I’ll definitely be looking into picking up more of these Faber Stories in the meantime. I can’t resist a good tiny collection.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Ghost Wall

From everything I’d heard about Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall prior to its US publication, this book sounded right up my alley. But I’ve seen a lot of variety between 5- and 3-star ratings, so I was curious to see which way this would go for me… and it did not disappoint!

ghostwallAbout the book: Silvie’s dad has dragged teenaged Silvie and her mom to a summer re-enactment of Iron Age living in the woods of northern England. The three of them are accompanying an anthropology professor and a few of his students, but Silvie’s dad is the real Iron Age fanatic. Silvie is a few years younger than the students, but her dad has prepared her well for this experiment: all her life, she’s been camping and exploring and sitting through his history lessons and speculations. He is not technically in charge, but he is the most dedicated. He wants everyone to live exactly as the Iron Age men and women did… and it’s Silvie and her mother who will pay if he doesn’t get his way.

Ghost Wall is perfectly horrifying, without any hint of the supernatural. The prologue is a gut-wrenching brief two pages about a girl who is on the verge of being ritualistically murdered, and it certainly sets a tone for the rest of the story. Though things do slow down quite a bit after that introduction, there’s no denying that something is about to go horribly wrong with the re-enactment. Hints of danger are scattered throughout the book- rocks in the cookfire that could explode, foraged foods whose poison status is determined by a guidebook, and increasing violence on the campground. There are so many possibilities that it’s impossible to see exactly what disaster will strike until it is announced… at which point the reader is filled with terrible dread as the danger approaches.

“The whole of life, I thought, is doing harm, we live by killing, as if there were any being of which that is not the case.”

But the horror of this story is not achieved through quick scares or cheap plot twists; these are characters who could live down the street from you, and their plausibility gives Ghost Wall its chill- as does the prospect that humanity has perhaps not advanced as far as one might think since the end of the Iron Age.

Though the middle part of the story is the longest and slowest- perhaps some might even call it boring, though I didn’t feel that way- it is riddled with “evidence.” Every event and anecdote reveals a bit of backstory or personality that plays a vital role in the way things turn out. Alliances are formed, quarrels begun, a power hierarchy established. This is a book about an experiment gone wrong- allowed to go wrong. There are no ghosts in sight, despite the suggestion of the supernatural in the title. It’s a book about character, and about what can happen when a group of very different characters gather outside of the eye of a moralized civilization.

Silvie is a teenage girl learning for the first time that her perception of normalcy has been skewed by her parents’ behavior. Molly is only there to pass the class, and calls the experiment like she sees it: boys having fun in the woods and heaping work on the women. The professor wants a little vacation brimming with chances to show off his book-smarts. Silvie’s mom aims to please her husband. And Silvie’s dad revels in the ability to put all of his Iron Age fascination to practical use. There’s some wonderful modern commentary about gender roles and independence, but the themes introduced apply neatly to both the present experiment and the ancient peoples being studied.

“Does he ever even ask her what she thinks, Molly went on. No one asks her what she thinks, I thought, she thinks as little as possible, what to have for tea tomorrow and will the washing powder last another week, if you want thinking, my mother is the wrong person to ask.”

And to top it off, there’s a great historical component about things found in bogs, preserved from the Iron Age. The fact that this doomed modern experiment could have so much in common with real historical practices is the most compelling and haunting facet of the novel.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I loved this disturbing little book. I finished it all in one go, which was nice but also left me wanting a lot more of Sarah Moss’s writing in my life. I will absolutely be reading more of her novels.

Further recommendations:

  • Shirley Jackson is a great writer to try if you love Ghost Wall. Her novel The Haunting of Hill House (which is nothing like the recent TV series by the same name) uses suggestions of the supernatural to weave a psychological story about a group assembled in a “haunted” house. Even Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” is a great macabre tale of the dark side of humanity, entwined with a horrifying ritual.
  • And if psychological horror with a side of gore is your style, you should try Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs– a beautifully crafted book about an FBI agent trying to prove herself, working with an insane criminal (Hannibal Lecter) to catch one of the most terrifying serial killers who’s ever existed. It’s a classic (and the book is as worth reading as the movie is worth seeing).

I usually save horror reading for October, but I’m trying something new this year. What’s your favorite horror story?

 

The Literary Elephant