A genre- (and expectation-) defying debut novel, a fantasy set in a drowned world, and a compelling thriller: my first three reads of 2016 were rather different from one another, but all very enjoyable.
You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine (25 August 2015) by Alexandra Kleeman is a truly bizarre tale of a life unravelling, though it starts innocuously enough, as the nameless narrator ruminates on the odd behaviour of her roommate (known only as B) and the empty relationship she has with her boyfriend (C). Then her neighbours leave en masse, wearing white sheets like Halloween ghost costumes, to join what it soon becomes clear is a sort of cult - one our narrator herself is ultimately seduced by.
Major elements of the plot include a supermarket chain where all the staff wear giant foam heads, a man who becomes famous due to his habit of shoplifting veal, and a game show for couples which ends with the losers being forced to split up. Then there's Kandy Kat, the animated mascot of the Kandy Kakes snack brand, who becomes something of a motif within the story: the narrator also develops an obsession with tracking down the all-artificial snack, and deteriorates physically in much the same way as the beleaguered, starved Kat. The many surreal details in You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine make it feel more similar to the strange stories of Robert Aickman than typical litfic fare - in fact, I was surprised by exactly how strange it turned out to be.
It's a weird combination of absurdist humour and creeping horror, laced with references to consumer culture, and definitely isn't the sort of story that will appeal to every reader. Nevertheless, if you ARE that reader, it's an absolutely fantastic experience, thrilling in its originality - yet more subtle than it has any right to be, given the often outlandish images it throws up.
The Gracekeepers (23 April 2015) by Kirsty Logan was first featured in one of my Sampling September posts, and, as promised, I went back to finish it before winter was out. The setting is a waterlogged world in which there is a class division between two groups, each represented by one of the main characters: landlockers, the lucky few with homes on dry land (like Callanish, a gracekeeper who tends the graves of those who die at sea) and damplings, whose nomadic lives are spent at sea (like circus performer North). When a storm hits and tragedy strikes the Circus Excalibur, North and Callanish meet and are immediately drawn to each other; The Gracekeepers becomes a story about their connection, how they are inescapably drawn back to one another, and about how each is searching, in some way, for a family, for a home, for permanence.
I said in that previous post I was worried the story would be too whimsical, but The Gracekeepers carried me along effortlessly with its beautiful description, strong characters and unique atmosphere. It has a cosy, magical feel that makes it a pleasure to read, but - like many good stories that initially appear to be whimsical - it has an undercurrent of darkness that adds spice and bite to a narrative that's often deceptively gentle. The setting is depicted as a dreamlike landscape (or, more appropriately, seascape), perfectly summed up by words like 'enchanted' and 'ethereal'. It might not suit those expecting a more explicitly post-apocalyptic backdrop, but I found the unreality beguiling.
Keep You Close (10 March 2016) by Lucie Whitehouse is the author's fourth novel, and it's an effective blend of her last book - Before We Met, a domestic thriller that I tried to enjoy but, if I'm honest, didn't - and her superior first two. It has the attention-grabbing thriller setup of Before We Met but, where that book was cold and sparse, this one has the rich, evocative description that worked so well in her first couple of books.
The plot revolves around Rowan, a PhD student; she learns at the beginning of the book that her old schoolfriend, Marianne Glass, has died in what appears to be either an accident or suicide, having fallen from the roof of her home. Convinced there is more to Marianne's death than the police have concluded, Rowan embarks on her own investigation, seeking answers from Marianne's family, friends and colleagues. But there are also questions around the friendship between the two women: why haven't they spoken in ten years, having spent their teens and early twenties as close as sisters? What is the terrible thing Marianne did that Rowan alludes to, and why did it impact their relationship in such a way?
Combining effective suspense with a vivid portrait of the city and suburbs of Oxford, this is a readable and thoroughly absorbing story. It succeeds at everything that matters in a book like this: creating characters you care about, building up atmosphere, keeping you guessing until the end is near - and I didn't figure out the big twist.
I received an advance review copy of Keep You Close via NetGalley.
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