In The House In The Dark Woods

In this ingenious horror story set in colonial New England, a woman goes missing. Or not missing – perhaps she has fled, abandoned her family. Or perhaps she’s been kidnapped and set loose to wander in the dense woods of the north. Alone and possibly lost, she meets another woman in the forest. Then everything changes.
On a journey that will take her through a wolf-haunted wood, down a deep well, and onto a living ship made of human bones, our heroine is forced to confront her past and may find that the evil she flees has been inside her all along.
Eerie and disturbing,
In The House In The Dark Woods is a novel of psychological horror and suspense told in Laird Hunt’s acclaimed lyrical prose. It is the story of a bewitching, a betrayal, a master huntress and her quarry. It is a story of anger, of oppression, of revenge and redemption.
It is a story of a haunting, one that forms the bedrock of American mythology, told in a vivid voice you will never forget.

In The House In The Dark Woods

I love following the Belletrist book club – even if I am several months behind at any given time – because almost always it introduces me to a title that never would have been on my radar otherwise. In The House In The Dark Woods, their pick from back in October, is a dark horror-fairy tale, a sinister and magical story about patriarchy, violence and coercion.

“For my own part I kept very quiet, as quiet as I have ever been, for there are things in this world that you think will never come to pass that will rob you of your voice for nothing but the joy of them when suddenly they do.”

Laird Hunt has a lyrical and strange writing style that is beautiful, but, for me anyway, took a little time to get used to. He is prone to very long sentences that follow the narrator’s rambling thoughts. They’re often lovely, but easy to get lost in. Kind of like the woods Goody, the narrator – not her real name, which we never learn – wanders, I guess.

The dark woods are filled with supernatural and formidable women. Captain Jane, self-styled queen of the woods, second only to Granny Someone, an evil force who only consumes; Eliza, a fairy-like presence with a welcoming cottage for weary wood-wanderers – well, friendly at first; and Hope, the mysterious child who always seems to show up at the exact moment you need her the most.

Everything about the narrative is unreliable – from Goody’s Man, who she initially represents as a caring presence she is desperate to find her way home to before soon revealing him as violent and abusive, to the very fabric of the woods, which seen through a magical stone turn horrifying, with even the animals transformed to monsters through its lens.

Most of all In The House In The Dark Woods is a deeply unsettling horror story. It’s hard to go into any analytical detail without spoilers – the curse of reviewing a story with an unreliable narrator – but with carefully constructed half-truths, corner-of-the-eye jumps and the sudden and jarring injection of the grotesque, Hunt winds a tight knot of anxiety in your stomach, even as you wonder what on earth is going on.

If you enjoyed the tragic twist at the end of We Were Liars or the underlying act of horror at the centre of The Walls Around Us then the complex and misleading women that populate In The House In The Dark Woods will likely catch your imagination too.

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The Incendiaries

Trigger warning: sexual assault

Phoebe Lin and Will Kendall meet during their first month at a prestigious university. Phoebe doesn’t tell anyone that she blames herself for her mother’s recent death. Will is a misfit scholarship boy transferring in from Bible college, waiting tables to make ends meet. What he knows for sure is that he loves Phoebe.

Haunted by her loss, Phoebe is increasingly drawn into a religious group – a secretive cult tied to North Korea – founded by a charismatic former student with an enigmatic past involving Phoebe’s Korean American family. Will struggles to confront the obsession consuming the one he loves and the fundamentalism he’s tried to escape. When the extremist group bombs several buildings in the name of faith, killing five people, Phoebe disappears. Will devotes himself to finding her, tilting into obsession himself, seeking answers to what happened to Phoebe and if she could have been responsible for this violent act.

The Incendiaries is a powerful love story and a brilliant examination of what can happen to people when they lose what they love most.

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The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon is a vivid and deeply unsettling novel about loss. I enjoyed it in the way you enjoy every story you know will end badly – through half-closed eyes, ready to look away at any moment but never quite able to.

Kwon’s writing is gorgeous, at once poetic and deeply specific as her characters spiral slowly further out of reach. Though the novel is theoretically split into three perspectives: Will’s, Phoebe’s and cult leader John Leal’s, all commentary really comes from Will as he tries to get into the minds of his girlfriend and the cult leader he believes took her from him. This leant the entire novel a layer of unreliability that really spoke to the subject matter – ultimately sometimes we will never understand the events that lead people we love to leave us. Often we are left with only theories and that’s what The Incendiaries feels like – Will’s theory.

The summary describes the book as a “powerful love story” but I wouldn’t call it that so much as a searing break up novel. Will is not a good boyfriend. He arrives at the university having recently transferred from bible college after losing his faith, and, thus unmoored, attaches himself to Phoebe like she’s his new religion. He’s grieving the loss of the God who kept him going through poverty and an unstable childhood – until one day, He didn’t – and deeply inadequate, a scholarship student in a school full of rich legacy kids. He hides his part time job and his proselytising past and revels in his own shame even as he lies to Phoebe about it. In the end it makes sense that Will would recognise John Leal as a fraud – it takes one to know one, I guess.

Ironic then, that the ex-born again would fall in love with a girl about to fall herself into the clutches of another fundamentalist belief system. Phoebe is also grieving and unmoored by the loss of her mother. She clings to partying, then Will and finally, newfound religion. She comes off so desperate to belong again to something that she’ll give herself to anything, which mostly means men who manipulate and abuse her trust in a range of violent and upsetting ways. Perhaps worst of all is that she isn’t even allowed to tell her story herself – we get it second hand, half imagined by the ex-boyfriend she clearly wanted nothing more than to escape.

Which isn’t to say she is not responsible for her actions, as much as Will tries to push that narrative after the devastating bombings Phoebe is implicated in hit the news, but that ultimately Phoebe remains to us throughout what she is to Will: mysterious, hard to reach. Probably dead.

The Incendiaries is a novel of dark foreboding perfect for fans of The Secret History. Kwon’s beautiful writing hooks you in and demands your attention if not your sympathy as she explores the disturbing tale of that which inspires people to acts of evil.

Never World Wake

Bee hasn’t spoken to her best friends since her boyfriend’s mysterious death. Now, a year later, she needs to face them. They’re beautiful, rich and deadly. She is certain one of them holds the truth about what really happened to Jim.

A whirlwind night leads to a narrowly missed car collision and a sinister man knocking at the door as a storm rages outside, to deliver a world-shattering message.

As secrets unravel and time backbends, the five friends must make a shocking choice.

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So that was three weeks. I apologise.

I am in kind of a weird place with reading right now. I was in a fairly sustained slump (had to give up reading The Idiot but I will get back to it at some point. Does anything ever actually happen? I was around 150 pages in and as yet nothing had) which lifted briefly while I was away so I could read The Closed Casket (a new Hercule Poirot novel by my love, Sophie Hannah) and the book I’m reviewing  today, Never World Wake by Marisha Pessl (Belletrist pick. Amazing, as always), but then I moved into The Accidental by Ali Smith and the slump has descended once again. I think I have the summer blues (that’s a thing, right?). If you have any cheering reading suggestions please throw them my way. I would like to get out of this slump for good.

Anyway. Never World Wake. This book came as a total surprise to me in all of the best ways. It’s the first YA book Belletrist has picked, and it is a stunner. We have ALL of my favourite ingredients: rich boarding school kids (with the obligatory outsider scholarship kid obviously), mysterious death, unreliable characters (all these fuckers do is lie) and magic.

Don’t judge it by its pretty cover. This book is one intense ride.

So we have a bunch of recently reunited rich teens – the aforementioned hedonistic rich kids and Bee, the scholarship student and the “good girl”, torn apart by the mysterious death of one of their group (Bee’s boyfriend), Jim a year prior. They come together for one final night of partying before they all depart for college, and on the way home driving in a collective drunk stupor they almost have a head on collision with a truck.

This is when shit really hits the fan.

They return home to their mansion, only to be visited by a strange elderly man (The Keeper, as we will come to know) who tells them that actually, that collision wasn’t a near miss. It was a direct hit. The five of them aren’t so much home and clear as, in actual fact, lying dead in that car, trapped in something called a Never World Wake. The way to escape? Only one of them can. The group have to unanimously vote on which of their number lives to see tomorrow. The rest of them die forever. In the mean time they are doomed to repeat the same day until they can reach a consensus on which of them will survive.

From this explosive beginning, Pessl takes the narrative in so many winding and shocking directions, with the storyline of the Wake and the mystery of Jim’s tragic death running concurrently, meeting and diverging during the absolute roller coaster ride that is reading this novel. Watching how each of the characters deals with the Wake – from trying desperately to reach a consensus and escape to losing themselves in the distractions that you can find in a consequence-less world that resets every 23 hours – is a fascinating insight into the worst of human psyche in a claustrophobic nightmare about survival at all costs or total self-destruction – depending on who you are.

Nothing in this novel is what it initially appears – what you remember as the grand love story of your life might actually turn out to have been a house of horrors, precious objects become rusted, broken and dangerous on closer inspection and the person you always felt was the strongest and the coolest under pressure? They will be the first one to break.

Pessl’s writing is rich, sensual, poetic and infused with a brutal darkness that really appealed to me. If you enjoyed We Were Liars by E. Lockhart or The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma it’s a pretty safe bet you’ll be into Never World Wake. It’s a truly gripping read.

“We swear we see each other, but all we are ever able to make out is a tiny porthole view of an ocean. We think we remember the past as it was, but our memories are as fantastic and flimsy as dreams.”

Welcome to Lagos

TW: sexual assault

Five runaways ride the bus from Bayelsa to a better life in a megacity. They are unlikely allies – a private, a housewife, an officer, a militant and a young girl. They share a need for escape and a dream for the future. Soon, they will also share a burden none could have expected, but for now, the five sit quietly with their hopes, as the billboards fly past and shout: Welcome to Lagos.

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Once again I have the fantastic Belletrist book club to thank for Welcome to Lagos by Chibundu Onuzo. This was an absolutely delightful take on moving to the city/coming of age story set in the city of Lagos, Nigeria. Two military deserters, one former militant with aspirations to be a radio star (and a fake American accent), a student and a homemaker on the run from her violent husband come together as an dysfunctional family during their escape from the violence ridden Niger Delta. War wounds (from spouses, militants and corrupt military generals) weighing heavy on them all, they follow their (somewhat) reluctant leader Chike into their new fast paced, mystifying, occasionally beautiful (but mostly nonsensical) Lagos life.

In addition to our core runaway family, the novel also tells the story of Ahmed, upper middle class UK educated editor of the anti-government (and anti-money. It is totally failing and only allowed to continue because Ahmed’s father used to be pretty high up in the (corrupt) government he is so against) newspaper the Nigerian Journal, and Chief Sandayọ, the (not so) Honourable Minster of Education for the Federal Republic of Nigeria, recently vanished with most of the Ministry’s money.

Realities come crashing together when Chike and co. move into an apparently deserted basement apartment that just so happens to be the secret hideaway of that (not so) Honourable Minister. And the stolen money.

Welcome to Lagos an excellent portrait of survival in a city that wants to eat you alive. In equal parts funny and tragic, we see Onuzo’s complexly realised characters fight to be better in an environment that really only calls for them to be worse. Chike, who, after deserting the army that was his purpose for so long (until his superiors starting ordering kills of anyone who dared disagree with them) is searching for a new cause, anything he can cling to to make it all worth it; Isoken, the student searches for some means of survival after a violent sexual assault; Fineboy the wannabe DJ and the only male member of his family not to have committed suicide fights to see a different end to his story; and Ahmed, so determined to see an end to corruption in his country yet a beneficiary of his father’s corrupt money when he needs it. It’s a novel heavy on irony, with every character swimming the wrong way in a strong current but refusing to be swept away – it’s about the belief that the world can be better despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

“Then Funkẹ had had her religious experience and all that suffering had been put in an unsettling perspective. The sooner the world unravelled, the sooner the second coming of her saviour. Earthquakes, famine, war: all signs and precursors to glorious rapture. It was a rationale to explain a world that never got better. Despite one’s best efforts, despite one’s highest hopes: the world did not change.”

Despite it all it’s not a pessimistic book. It’s a book about trying, even when trying is stupid, even when trying seems to make the situation worse. It’s a book about redemption, and it how it can be found in unexpected places. Most of all it’s a book about not allowing yourself to be lost in the rush of a system or a city much bigger than you, a ‘how to’ guide for keeping your head above water.

“Most likely his doubts would return, with activity, with employment, but he would not regret these days of belief, these moments of faith when all seemed plausible and the world was made in seven days.”

THINGS TO NOTE

If you don’t know anything of Nigeria’s political history (I did not) it is easy to feel disorientated in this story. Fortunately for us, we live in the age of Google so things like this are pretty easy to rectify. You are not going to understand the entire complicated political history of Nigeria since its independence in an afternoon, but you can certainly learn a few things. Here are a few sources I found helpful:

A timeline of key events in Nigeria (starts in 800BC, which is a little early for our purposes but it interesting nonetheless)

This 2011 piece by Remi Adekoya is a good whistle-stop tour of the origins of Nigeria’s problems, particularly with regards to the effects of colonialism and the country’s crude oil, which is mentioned in Welcome to Lagos a few times

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is an amazing book you should read anyway, but also paints a picture of Nigeria in its infancy as an independent country. Obviously I’m not saying read this one first, but having read it it gave me a bit more context for the history of Nigeria that was helpful while reading

As with any analysis of a country, all should be read with a critical mindset and an awareness of the authors’ biases, but the above helped give a bit of context when, during my reading, I would find myself feeling like I was misunderstanding vital bits of plot because of a lack of basic knowledge about the country I was reading about. Yay Google!

The Immortalists

It’s 1989, and holed up in a grimy tenement building in New York’s Lower East Side is a travelling psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the date they will die. The four Gold children, too young for what they’re about to hear, sneak out to learn their fortunes.

Over the years that follow, the siblings must choose how to live with the prophecies the fortune-teller gave them that day. Will they accept, ignore, cheat or defy them? Golden-boy Simon escapes to San Francisco, searching for love; dreamy Klara becomes a Las Vegas magician; eldest son Daniel tries to control fate as an army doctor after 9/11; and bookish Varya looks to science for the answers she craves.

A sweeping novel of remarkable ambition and depth, The Immortalists is a story about how we live, how we die, ad what we do with the time we have.

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My god. The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin is not a novel to be entered into lightly. I say this as someone who did – grabbing it because it was a Belletrist book club pick I couldn’t afford at the time they were reading it, without really considering what the summary actually meant. Prepare to come face to face with all your existential anxiety because this is a book about death.

But I still think that you should read it.

To be overly honest and unnecessarily grim, whether we admit it to ourselves or not, life is really defined by its finiteness. That fact, and the crippling panic that comes along with it is something that the majority of us are able to ignore most of the time, but in her clever, tragic, depressing, ironic and at times highly frustrating novel, Benjamin tackles a version of life with that deliberate ignorance removed. Bored one day during the summer, the Gold siblings make a decision that will define the rest of their lives: they find out (or think they find out) exactly when they will die, and in doing so, lose the ability to think about almost anything else.

After our introduction to the Gold family, the book is separated into five sections; the beginning, and then four periods of time, each following a Gold sibling through the final years of their lives (or are they?) as predicted by the fortune-teller. How they each respond so differently to the fortune-teller’s prophecy is a credit to Benjamin’s story telling: Simon’s panicked rush to the finish line, determined to get everything he can out of life before his time runs out; Klara’s fatalism, brought about by her undiagnosed mental health problems; Daniel’s aggressive denial; and Varya’s career, built around a desperate search for a way to extend human life – ironic, as she is the only sibling prophesied to grow old.*

*not a spoiler. You find out in the first couple pages.

There are so many interesting things in The Immortalists, but perhaps one of my favourite elements was the way in which Benjamin, no matter how tragic the family become, never once let the Golds off the hook. As they turned inward, able to experience only their own grief and suffering, Benjamin, as if from a great distance, shouts to them about the other pain that exists in the world. I’m not convinced they ever heard her, and the truth and the frustration in this felt very authentic. As Simon navigated the world as a gay man in the seventies he is unable to see – though repeatedly told – that The Castro in San Francisco, the place where he has finally found his home, excludes Robert, his black boyfriend. Klara is unable to look past her own personal tragedies to see those of her partner, Raj. Born in the slums of Bombay, his father gave everything he had to send him to the US and then died before he could follow. Though he tries to make the point to Klara, and to other members of the Gold family, they never quite grasp that there is pain in the world that is structurally built into it, and just as valid as their own.

The Immortalists is a difficult, upsetting, but ultimately beautiful read. Benjamin doesn’t shy away from her subject matter, whether it’s the reality of death and our relationship to it, or the nails-down-a-chalkboard, walking-on-egg-shells, call-screening aspects of being in a difficult family.

It will totally mess you up though, so do read something fun after. I recommend either light fantasy or a YA contemporary romance.

The End We Start From

In the midst of a mysterious environmental crises, as London is submerged below flood waters, a woman gives birth to her first child, Z. Days later, the family are forced to leave their home in search of safety. As they move from place to place, shelter to shelter, their journey traces both fear and wonder as Z’s small fists grasp at things he sees, as he grows and stretches, thriving and content against all the odds.

This is a story of new motherhood in a terrifying setting: a familiar world made dangerous and unstable, its people forced to become refugees. Startlingly beautiful, The End We Start From is a gripping novel that paints an imagined future as realistic as it is frightening. And yet, though the country is falling apart around them, this family’s world – of new life and new hope – sings with love.

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The End We Start From by Megan Hunter is a snack of a novel. At only 127 pages, I finished it in only a couple of sittings, and the spare beauty of Hunter’s writing along with the expansive yet simplistic story snapped me right out of the reading slump that’s plagued me throughout February. It was one of those reads where, when I reached the end, I closed the book and just sort of stared at it for a minute like ‘how did you do this to me?

The End We Start From is a Belletrist book club pick from a few months back – as much as I love Belletrist, I unfortunately cannot read along in real time because they pick literary new releases, which are always hardback and my bank account, sadly, just can’t handle that kind of abuse. Needless to say, Emma and Kara have done it yet again. This. Book. Is. Gorgeous.

Hunter began her career as a poet, something that is wholly evident throughout the book, which is both lyrical and simplistic in style. There is a deliberate vagueness to her writing that works to create just the right amount of intrigue and the right amount of universality in a book concerned with the ways in which people cling to normality when thrust into extraordinary situations.

This is a story about the end of the world, yes, but that is only the backdrop. The lead story is that of new motherhood, of the sheltered world families go into when it is just them and their new baby. The catastrophe they are surrounded by is constant, but within that we sit in a strange oasis of calm where I raises her baby Z, and although the outside world encroaches, it doesn’t overwhelm – even if it does. Because whatever is happening outside, with the floods and the fights, I still has a baby to look after.

This is a gorgeous, strange, unique, haunting and ultimately uplifting novel. I can’t recommend it enough.

Sex and Rage

The popular resurgence of Eve Babitz continues with this very special reissue of her novel, originally published in 1979, about a dreamy young girl moving between Los Angeles and New York City. Sex and Rage delights in its sensuous, dreamlike narrative and its spontaneous embrace of fate and work, and further solidifies Eve Babitz’s place as a singularly important voice in Los Angeles literature – haunting, alluring and alive.

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I absolutely fall into the category of person who clicks on every single ‘books you must read in your twenties’ list Buzzfeed vomits out. If my teenage reading was characterised by a desperate need to escape, as I’ve progressed into my twenties it has transformed into a frantic search for… something. I don’t think I’m the only one. If teen must-read selections major on the paranormal, tragiporn and romance, for us recent adults, picks are more along the lines of coming-of-age amidst heartbreak.

I’m on a solid reading diet of both, and I’m super into it. As much as I love YA, there is a certain amount of self-reflection I enjoy in adult books that, I’ve found you can’t really appreciate until you hit twenty-two and the dust starts to settle into something like your personality. It’s the point at which all those oddities of yourself you were always told you’d grow out of actually become the things you grow into, and subsequently come to blame your parents for.

Or is that just me?

Sex and Rage is exactly the sort of book that would feature on a must-reads for your twenties list. It is deliciously self absorbed. Though it’s written in the third person, it’s one that is close to its protagonist, Jacaranda. The world we experience is entirely hers as she tries to figure out who she is by means of self-destruction and the men who fall for her.

She feels afflicted by youth but total dread at the thought of aging, so tries to live in a way that winds up being too much for her heart to handle. By the age of 23, after five years of living away from the sea she loves so much, immersed in music and the affair she has with a married screenwriter, she moves back to the beach and declares herself bored with rock and roll and in search of the next adventure. And that’s just the first thirty pages.

Sex and Rage is the July pick for the Belletrist book club, and as every month they featured an interview with the author, in this case Eve Babitz. In their conversation with her, it came up that in search of fun, many young women find themselves in completely miserable situations. This is exactly what happens to Jacaranda.

Much of the narrative of the novel is defined by one man: Max. Jacaranda meets Max through an actor she’s sleeping with, and falls instantly in love with this older, charismatic man who lives a glamorous life and makes money through mysterious means that don’t necessarily seem to involve work. Though their relationship is never explicitly romantic – Max’s sexuality remains a point of mystery throughout – the intensity of it is greater than all of her other affairs.

Which means when it goes wrong – as always happens in Max’s life, it becomes apparent – the results for Jacaranda are catastrophic. Underneath his glamour and air of adventure, Max is a cold hearted bully with the ability to make you feel like the centre of the world one moment, and the next like you don’t deserve to live at all.

“The gold had washed off the surface and the Gates of Paradise had been melted down for private purposes no longer on public view. It was only art anyway. Max’s attitude seemed to say – a dismissal of all he’d been before – and suddenly he smelled like suitcases and dry cleaning, not a birthday party for an eight-year-old at all. She kept waiting for him to change back.”

Jacaranda is left deeply scarred by Max, who spent their time together undermining every aspect of her personality, from her appearance to her art – she painted surfboards for a living until Max told her she was a horrible painter – to her budding new love of writing.

As she spirals out into alcoholism and despair, even as her writing career picks up, it takes a long time for her to shed the negative beliefs about herself that Max installed in her. In so many ways, Sex and Rage is a novel of overcoming. Jacaranda’s writing is in defiance of Max and all the people who told her not to do it. To go and meet her publisher in New York – the city she knows Max is in – is to finally relinquish the fear of him that has controlled her life for the best part of a decade. To stop drinking is to know herself on a level she assumed no one would want after Max’s bitter rejection.

Sex and Rage is a sensuous, sexual, self-destructive time capsule of Los Angeles in the seventies. It’s one of those novels consumed with place as much as feeling and you can’t help but fall back into that time of seedy glamour and delayed consequences like sinking into a warm bath. You want to stay there forever, but you know it’s going to get cold and gross before you know it.

In the aforementioned interview with the Belletrist team, Eve Babitz said something that really struck me as emblematic of this book, and of optimism in general. She said:

“You’ll find yourself in a lot of miserable situations regardless, whether you’re seeking out a good time or not, but it’s better to try to enjoy oneself than give up all together and wither away. I have always preferred to look on the bright side.”

Yeah. That seems about right.