'I'm writing this in a stranger's room on a broken chair at an old school desk. The chair creaks if I move, and so I must keep very still. The lid of the desk is scored with symbols that might have been made by children or men, and at the bottom of the inkwell a beetle is lying on its back. Just now I thought I saw it move, but it's dry as a husk and must've died long before I came.'
So how did John Cole come to be in a stranger's room? A heatwave hangs over London that eventually drives away anyone who can pack up and leave. Feeling isolated, not to mention a bit ill, John decides to close his bookshop until further notice and visit his brother in Norfolk. When his car begins to overheat with London an hour behind him, John pulls over in a shady patch. In a trance-like state, along with periodic bouts of vomiting, John walks toward a large house that has been neglected and 'bears stains where ivy had been pulled down from the walls'. As he approaches, a young woman, not much more than a girl, opens the door and addresses John by name.
Now at this point most people would get the heebie jeebies and think of a quick reason to retreat, but I'm well on my way to suspending disbelief and am willing to just go with it. Crossing the threshold of the house, into the unknown, ramps up my anticipation that something very bad is about to happen. And after all, being driven into spasms of gut-wrenching fear is exactly what you want in a Halloween read. But the story changed gears which left me a bit wanting. I wanted John to hone every psychological trick in the book to get out of the house in one piece but in no time at all he's at the dinner table and tucking in for the night. And just who are John's new hosts? They're former residents of a psychiatric convalescent home.
Hester owns the house and is quite the imposing figure, Alex and Clare are red-haired twins who seem relatively innocent, Eve is mysterious, aloof, and having an affair with Walker. Elijah is a retired preacher...and there are plenty of biblical references within the story. A day of reckoning is swiftly approaching as Alex becomes obsessed with the idea that the nearby reservoir has a crack which could lead to a catastrophe.
The weather holds its own as a character in this story as does a wonderful sense of timelessness. Even the sundial is broken so you can never be sure of the hour.
There is a thread of illness that plagues John which made me wonder if he was being drugged into some sort of compliance. I silently yelled at him to refuse cups of tea and glasses of wine but he is an equal partner in what amounts to a case of mistaken identity. In any case, the story never went where I thought it would and I'm left wondering if that's a good thing or not. Did Sarah Perry write a superbly clever novel or did she have a terrific idea that didn't quite come together? There were several convenient aspects that I couldn't let go, but perhaps I like my stories to be a bit more cut and dried. In any case, I do look forward to seeing what Perry turns out next.