Sunday, 22 March 2015

Cast adrift: Day Four by Sarah Lotz

Day Four by Sarah LotzDay Four (21 May 2015) by Sarah Lotz

The unfortunate thing about Lotz's follow-up (and loose 'sequel') to The Three is that it's not The Three. As one of my favourite books of 2014, it was always going to be a hard act to follow, and I was over the moon to get hold of an advance copy of Lotz's new book. It's with a heavy heart, then, that I have to report I simply didn't enjoy Day Four anywhere near as much. Despite that 'sequel' tag, it's actually a standalone novel, with a tenuous connection to a couple of characters from The Three: just enough to make it clear that both take place in the same world, but no more than that.

The setting is The Beautiful Dreamer, a cheap and not-very-cheerful cruise ship which gets stranded in the Gulf of Mexico. The story unfolds over four days as tensions rise, rescue starts to seem impossible, and conditions grow increasingly wretched. At the same time, the desperate passengers become more and more spooked by inexplicable goings-on: shadowy figures darting around the corridors, a distinctly fake showbiz medium suddenly gaining the ability to make extremely accurate predictions, even the dead - apparently - coming back to life. It's all filtered through a variety of viewpoints, with eight disparate characters revisited in alternate chapters. They are Maddie, long-suffering assistant to the aforementioned celebrity medium; Gary, a middle-aged, married passenger who is also, um, a murderer; Althea, a slightly sociopathic crew member; Helen and Elise, two elderly passengers who have joined the cruise with the intention of killing themselves before it's over; Jesse, the ship's doctor; Devi, a member of the security staff; and Xavier, a blogger trailing Celine (that celebrity medium again) and trying to expose her as a fraud.

What really drew me into this, much more than the premise, was the promise of reading more from Lotz. The Three was so thrilling, its characters so compelling, it was so terrifying, that I was certain I'd be glued to Day Four. The one thing I didn't expect it to be was boring. Unfortunately... it is, in parts.

So what exactly is it that's gone wrong here? Firstly, I was disappointed and a little bit surprised to find third person narration used throughout the book. The first person narratives in The Three were so effective, and with eight main characters to keep track of here, the lack of variety makes it harder than it should be to differentiate them. Attempts to mark them out using repetition within their internal monologues fall a bit flat because they simply become annoying - see Gary's 'his girl' and Althea's intensely irritating 'fuck-darned'. Secondly, the setting is limiting - the whole book (save the short last section) is set on board the ship, and since part of the story is how generic and tacky it is, it's simply not a place you want to keep reading about. Thirdly, while four days without rescue is certainly unusual, it just isn't long enough or big enough to create the same high-stakes sense of terror and imminent doom that The Three did so well. There are problems with some characters just not being interesting; problems with the simple fact that there are so many characters (once secondary characters are added in, it starts to feel like this surely must be everyone on board the ship).

That's not to say Day Four is actually a bad book. It is gripping, and I didn't want to put it down, though I'd be lying if I said that wasn't at least partly because I kept thinking 'I'll get to the good bit soon'. That Lotz's description is vivid and unflinching is both a strength and a problem; she makes everything feel real, but there's only so many descriptions of confined spaces with no working toilets, running water or air-con it's possible to read without feeling exhausted and slightly nauseated. In fact, when I think about it, maybe the whole reason this didn't work for me was because it was a different brand of horror from what I expected to experience. Far from the scintillating meld of ghost story, sci-fi and found-footage thriller I was expecting after The Three, Day Four details the banal horror of a microcosm of humanity left to its own devices, losing the will to care about hygiene and safety, trying to come to terms with the prospect of a slow and squalid death.

Towards the end, however, Day Four suddenly gains the momentum it should have had all along. After what seems like an anticlimactic conclusion to the characters' stories, the final chapter is composed of newspaper articles and 'leaked' fragments of interviews with the passengers. It was this 'mixed media' approach that gave The Three some of its magic, and it works here too, using partial stories and accounts removed from the scene itself to stir up a delicious sense of ambiguity. Plus it gives you some hints about what may, or may not, have happened after the end of the ship's four days afloat. But who is telling the truth; who's to say what is and isn't real? The ending is nothing short of brilliant, but - no matter how much I'd like to - I just can't say the same about the rest of the book.

I'm aware that every part of my review has involved comparisons between Day Four and The Three. I know that isn't really fair, but since Day Four has been touted as a sequel and even given a similar title and cover, those comparisons are inevitably going to be made. This is a solid book in its own right, with enough exciting bits to make it worth a rainy-day read. Fans of The Three, however, may need to adjust their expectations.

I received an advance review copy of Day Four from the publisher.

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