We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler; Little Face, by Sophie Hannah; Long Lankin, by Lindsey Barraclough

completelyIt’s been out since last year, so you may have already read some reviews for We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. But if you haven’t– don’t. Almost all the reviews I saw contained spoilers, and though none of them ruined the book for me (it is really too good to be ruined), I envy the reader who picks it up completely ignorant of its treasures. I’ll say only that it’s narrated by Rosemary Cooke, who as a child had her sister taken away from her for reasons she did not understand.

The story of what happened to her sister and why is interesting enough, but on top of that, Fowler is a thoughtful writer who creates in Rosemary a character who is aware of the discrepancy between memory and fact– and who is also aware that there is as much truth to be found in one as in the other. It’s also the rare book with a nifty premise that doesn’t fall apart at the end. The premise isn’t merely a trick– it informs and enhances the meaning of the book. Read at least the first 100 pages. You’ll be hooked.

faceThis was my first encounter with Sophie Hannah. It may be my last. Not that the book was bad; there are just better, tighter thrillers out there. Certainly it starts out well: recovering from a difficult birthing, Alice Fancourt returns from her first post-op outing to find that the child in her baby’s crib is not her child. They look alike, but not the same, and Alice swears the new baby’s cry is different. Her vacuous and controlling husband David insists it is their baby, and driven nearly insane through exhaustion, worry, and frustration that the police don’t seem to believe her, Alice attempts to investigate her daughter’s disappearance on her own. She must also contend with her domineering mother-in-law, who oversees nearly every aspect of her son’s life and Alice’s. The chapters from Alice’s point of view alternate with third-person omniscient chapters about Simon Waterhouse, the detective assigned to her case. Waterhouse is not sure what to believe, other than that he is extremely suspicious of David, whose first wife was murdered in an apparent mugging.

Hannah does an excellent job of keeping the reader in suspense as to the state of Alice’s mental health. Since David also appears to be somewhat unhinged, we don’t know whose word to take. But this is one of the book’s only strengths. Intersplicing first-person chapters with third-person sections could have increased the tension, if it weren’t for the fact that the Waterhouse sub-plot is a drag. It would be of little interest even as a separate story, but it shares no thematic links to the main plot and barely moves the story forward. When the stories do begin to tie together a bit more closely towards the end, the pace gets pulled up short by a lengthy denouement. By this time, the reader is too exhausted and disappointed to even analyze for continuity errors. I know Hannah is a fairly popular author; perhaps her subsequent novels are more tightly plotted and structured than her first.

lankinLong Lankin shares with Little Face a less-than-successful multiple POV structure. Quite the opposite of the latter book, Barraclough’s YA horror novel ends too abruptly, leaving several points of interest unresolved after a lengthy build-up. But if you can get past all this, there’s a lot of wonderfully creepy stuff, and a highly visual and atmospheric setting.

That setting would be the English countryside in 1958, where Cora and her little sister, Mimi, have been sent by their father following their mother’s unexplained disappearance. They are to live with their great-aunt Ida, who has let herself and her ancient family home fall into disrepair. She warns Cora and Mimi not to ask questions and to stay away from the old church, but, being children, they disobey her and awaken Long Lankin, who has preyed on the youth of their family for generations.

The book’s main material is great. Any evil thing that has a creepy rhyme associated with it is going to have some allure for the horror fan, no? And the old rotting mansion in the English countryside has been done many times, but for a good reason. Barraclough uses the trope well, describing the house with visuals, smells, and textures. Cora interacts with the house as if it were a living thing, moving in and around and through it, discovering it. The vastness of the house underscores her solitariness despite the presence of her aunt and sister. The horror scenes are so perfectly scary that I wanted the rest of the book to match their excellence, but my desire to read more about Cora’s family and its curse was dampened by POV chapters from Aunt Ida and Cora’s friend Roger. Ida has a backstory, but she never really comes to life as a character, and it would have made the book better if her personality had been merely sketched out with plenty of space for the reader to infer more intricate shading. As it is, the book reads as if it tried to give her a voice and failed. Cora’s friend Roger is a completely irrelevant distraction. It’s hard to tell whether Barraclough was trying to use him to further the plot (he doesn’t), or to create a larger sense of atmosphere in a small town of superstitious people (he doesn’t). These missteps add to the sense that the book is somehow unfinished, or at least not well-edited. There’s a great book in here, chopped up by some material that is trying to make it into something else.

One thought on “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler; Little Face, by Sophie Hannah; Long Lankin, by Lindsey Barraclough

  1. Pingback: February Final Verdicts: Yea or Nay? | Effusions of Wit and Humour

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