Two encompassing themes to this collection: primarily, the evil of solitude, or how solitude equates with or drives one to madness; then boundaries, blurring and pushing them (of reality, knowledge, perception, life and death, even geography)
Celephaïs: Gorgeous in spite of the cold reality. From Kuranes dreams to mine... yeah, that's not disturbing at all.
From Beyond: The type of story one expects when one hears "Lovecraft". And it's freaking good.
Hypnos: *blink* Erh... OK. Like this wasn't disturbing, a final twist. I would have said it bore serious homo-erotic tones, but then... Begs for a second read. Or a tenth.
The Temple: That's what I call a bit of Karma for a stubborn nationalist.
Note: for some reason (and what I mean is lazy translation), it's titled as Santuario (sanctuary) in my Spanish copy instead of the closer Templo.
The Tree: Did not take the expected turn. And sent me on a wiki-walk that ended landing me on the seven wonders. Pretty imagery.
Actually, the whole collection, for all the horror elements, is powerful on beautiful and vivid imagery. The kind that plays as a magic-movie on your mind, fills you with wonder as you read and stays with you.
By the way, I went looking into the publishing date, and in typical wiki walk style, ended up learning about the difference between horror and terror. I need a new shelf, because this one goes into the second without question.
Points I can praise without spoiling (much):
The way everyone chats and snarks, cool as cucumbers while all the shit is going down. At times it made me laugh, at times I would tilt my head and wonder whether everyone was just crazy, and at times I would go back a paragraph wondering if I had miss-read
about the freaking blood/writing/thumping.
The dialogue (again), and how it crosses, goes over each others lines, interrupts, repeats, mixes conversations. Very natural. And sometimes confusing. You have to be engaged, because it goes fast.
Eleanor's thought process. Yeah...
All the commentary on social interaction. Jackson is a scary observant woman.
"She knew, of course, that he was delighting in exceeding his authority, as though once he moved to unlock the gate he would lose the little temporary superiority he thought he had—and what superiority have I? she wondered; I am outside the gate, after all. She could already see that losing her temper, which she did rarely because she was so afraid of being ineffectual, would only turn him away, leaving her still outside the gate, railing futilely. She could even anticipate his innocence if he were reproved later for this arrogance—the maliciously vacant grin, the wide, blank eyes, the whining voice protesting that he would have let her in, he planned to let her in, but how could he be sure? He had his orders, didn’t he? And he had to do what he was told? He’d be the one to get in trouble, wouldn’t he, if he let in someone who wasn’t supposed to be inside?"
Not able to comment on without spoiling:
The deep uncertainty that comes from viewing this story from Eleanor's head. Was she just that deranged, lonely, needy and possibly in-denial-lesbian? Or was she not deranged (the other are more or less foregone) and the house gave her a last push? There is also the opening, that if I were take on the context of Eleanor's situation, could mean that when all her illusions and daydreams were ripped from her, she had no avenue left but suicide. She could not cope with her absolute reality.
At any rate, an excellently written spook.
“God God—whose hand was I holding?”
The Night Guest opens with elderly Ruth fearing she can hear and smell a tiger in her house--in Australia. One of the great pleasures of this book is its unreliable narrator, unreliable not because she's deceptive but because her mind isn't what it used to be and may be getting worse. Yet the phantom of the tiger presages what may be a real danger: the arrival of a woman named Frida who claims to be a government carer. Is she, or is she fleecing Ruth?
Ruth's narration leaves just enough room for the reader to come to their own conclusions about her and Frida. Some things are left diaphanous, but not so hazy as to cause confusion. On top of that, the prose is terrific: distinctive but not overbearingly poetic. McFarlane capture fine states of feeling or consciousness with her language and imagery. I really delighted in reading it.
Not so delightful is the nature of what's going on, or even the suspicion of it. My grandmother, who died a few years ago, suffered from dementia. She had an excellent aide, but my parents eventually had to put her in a nursing home close to where they live. Even the best of those places upset me, and it was hard for me to see my grandmother--the smartest person in my family--lose herself. This recent experience made it difficult to continue at times.
I also found myself thinking about Frida's race and physicality--she's a brown-skinned and heavyset woman. Ruth is tiny and was fair-haired. What's being said about Frida and race? I searched reviews and finally found one that addresses the issue by referencing the author's own explanation (in the Sydney Review of Books, here). This explanation satisfied me, though I'm still wondering about Frida's size.
Finally, it was lovely to see a bit of romance between Ruth and her almost-love from the past, who's even older than she is. A delicately handled rarity in literary fiction.
I’m writing this review as part of Rosie’s Book Review Team. If you are an author and are looking for reviews, I recommend you check here, as she manages a great group of reviewers and if they like your book, you’ve made it!
Having read and enjoyed Brian Cohn’s previous novel The Last Detective (you can check my review here), I was very intrigued by his new novel. Although it also promised a mystery/thriller of sorts, this one was set firmly in the present, well, as firmly as anything can be when told by a character suffering from paranoid schizophrenia who rarely takes his medication. As I am a psychiatrist, and I read many thrillers, the book had a double interest for me.
As the description says, the story is told is narrated, in the first person, by the main character, the Brendan Meeks of the title. Although he is from a good family and had an affluent (if not the happiest) childhood, his mental illness disrupted his education (he was studying a masters in computer sciences at the time), and his life. He now lives in a rundown apartment in St. Louis, surrounded by other marginal characters (a war veteran suffering from PTSD who never leaves the house, a drug-addict girl whose dealer has become something more personal, an understanding Bosnian landlord…). His main support is his sister Wendy. When she dies, he decides to investigate her death, and things get even more complicated, as his brain starts making connections and seeing coincidences that might or might not be really there.
Brendan is the perfect example of an unreliable narrator. His mental illness makes him misinterpret things, give ominous meanings to random events, and believe that everything that happens relates to him and “the code”. Brendan hears voices, abusive voices, mostly in the second person, that give him orders, insult him, tell him to harm himself and others… He has a complex system of paranoid delusions, all related to a “code” he believes was implanted in his brain, and he is convinced that there is a conspiracy of various agencies (mostly men dressed in dark suits driving black SUVs) that will stop at nothing to try and recover that information. Thanks to his parents’ money (as this is the USA, his access to care would be limited otherwise) he sees a psychiatrist once a week, but he rarely takes medication, as he is convinced that if he does, he won’t be able to escape these agents that are after him. Yes, the medication helps with the voices, but it does not seem to touch his delusions (if it is all a delusion). There are several points in the novel when Brendan ends up in hospital and is given medication, and then he seems to hold it together for a while, enough to go after some clues and make some enquiries, but the longer he goes without medication, the more we doubt anything we read and wonder if any of the connections his brain makes are real or just a part of his illness.
I thought the depiction of Brendan’s mental illness and symptoms was very well done. It brought to my mind conversations with many of my patients, including his use of loud music or the radio to drown the voices, his feelings about the medication, his self-doubt, the attitude of others towards him (most of the characters are very understanding and friendly towards Brendan, although he faces doubt and disbelief a few times, not surprisingly, especially in his dealings with the police and the authorities), and his thought processes. He is a likeable and relatable character, faced with an incredibly difficult situation, but determined to keep going no matter what. His sister’s death motivates him to focus and concentrate on something other than himself and his own worries, and that, ultimately, is what helps him move on and accept the possibility of a more positive future. He also shows at times, flashes of the humour that was in evidence in the author’s previous novel, although here less dark and less often (as it again fluctuates according to the character’s experiences).
The narration is fluid and fast, the pace changing in keeping with the point of view and the mental state of the protagonist. There are clues to the later discoveries from early on (and I did guess a few of the plot points) although the narrator’s mental state creates a good deal of confusion and doubt. The rest of the characters are less well-drawn than Brendan, although that also fits in with the narration style (we only learn as much as he tell us or thinks about them at the time, including his doubts and suspicions when he is not well), and the same goes for his altered perceptions of places and events (sometimes offering plenty of detail about unimportant things, and others paying hardly any attention at all).
Where the book did not work that well for me was when it came to the mystery/thriller part of it. There are inconsistencies and plot holes that I don’t think can be put down to the mental state or the altered perception of the character. There is an important plot point that did not fit in for me and tested my suspension of disbelief (in fact made me wonder if the level of unreliability extended beyond what the novel seemed to suggest up to that point and I became even more suspicious of everything), and I suspect readers who love police procedural stories will also wonder about a few of the things that happen and how they all fit together, but, otherwise, there are plenty of twists, and as I said, the build-up of the character and the depiction of his world and perspective is well achieved. Although the subject matter includes drugs, overdoses, corruption, child neglect, difficult family situations, abuse, adultery, and murder, there is no excessive or graphic use of violence or gore, and everything is filtered through Brendan’s point of view, and he is (despite whatever the voices might say) kind and warm-hearted.
I recommend it to readers interested in unreliable narrators, who love mysteries (but perhaps not sticklers for details or looking for realistic and detailed investigations), and are keen on sympathetic psychological portrayals of the everyday life of a young man suffering from schizophrenia.