A gorgeous, unnerving, and supremely masterful novel.
". . . to plunge a viewer into a state of terror meant to take away their compass, their tools for navigating the world, and to replace it with a compass that told a different kind of truth. The trick was ensuring the viewer was so consumed by fright that they didn't even notice this exchange was being made; it was a secret transaction between their imagination and the film, and when they left the theater, those new truths would go with them, swimming like eels under the skin."
In a slim package, van den Berg delves into a wealth of topics, each one adding another layer to the narrative. The layers interact, conflict, and entangle to create something altogether spellbinding, a phantasmagoria of grief, marriage and relationships, travel, horror tropes, film, memory and the psyche, and ultimately, the search for self.
The writing is so easy to get wrapped up in, and even though it is a slim book under 200 pages, it took me almost a week to get through it because I was so invested in reading every word; sometimes I read sentences multiple times. The author writes with such precision and strength of voice that it was easy to sink into the story, while at the same time, I was constantly finding wonderful sentences that I needed to mark to revisit later.
The story doesn't go where I thought it would at all, it is a much more quiet and introspective examination of the self, the past, and how one's own life can be unrecognizable and completely familiar all at once. But it is perfect, and I very much enjoyed every minute of Clare's journey. It is in the space in between what we know and what we don't know that true exploration begins. But most people are too afraid to go there because maybe that's where the monsters live too.
"Horror films had taught her that a person could will a thing into existence, but once it was outside their consciousness, the consciousness that had been busily inventing simultaneous possibilities, it became a force unto itself, ferocious and uncontrollable."
While I can't say that this is a horror novel, perhaps it could be horror-adjacent. The references to horror movies and elements of horror analysis throughout prove that van den Berg is knowledgable about the genre, and they are more than just lip service to fans. Concepts from horror, like the final girl, play an integral part of Clare's journey, in both how she begins to see the world through a different lens and how she begins to see herself—past and present—through different eyes even as she spirals downward.
I think horror readers who are into literary fiction will quite enjoy this. It has the dreamlike propulsiveness of Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, but with more narrative flow, like Neil Gaiman's psychologically dreamlike and haunting The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
My thanks to FSG for sending me a finished copy of this book to read and review.
Associate editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.