A few weeks ago, I was gripped by a reckless desire to read horror fiction. The last time I read and enjoyed this genre was when I read The Exorcist , but since then, I have only read short stories that could be described as scary, and I wanted to read a full-length book. While browsing through Half-Price Books, I chanced upon this book by John Harwood – an unknown writer, and an unknown book, for me. A quick search on Amazon’s reviews showed me that it had decent star rating and I bought the book.
The beginning seemed a little slow, but it soon picked up the pace and began to take surprising turns. Gerard Freeman, a young boy, leads a boring, insipid life in a small Australian town, when he happens to make a penfriend in England. She’s a beautiful young girl who has been in an accident that killed her parents and left her paralyzed and unable to walk. Alice, the penfriend, and Gerard write to each other for years, slowly falling in love and planning to meet. In the meantime, Gerard and his mother have a falling-out because she doesn’t like his involvement with Alice, and in spite of constant requests, Gerard’s mother refuses to talk to him about her past, something she did when they were on better terms. But Gerard has a link to his mother’s past – short stories written by her grandmother – which are interspersed throughout the novel. The narrative only gets more complicated from here on.
One of the most striking things about this book, is Harwood’s capacity to write in different genres – there’s the novel we’re reading from Gerard’s perspective, letters from Alice, and there are short stories written by Viola, Gerard’s great-grandmother. That in itself is a feat that makes me admire the writer and the book. And here’s when I inject the dreaded “but.” But, the problem with this book, as it is with many debut works is its length and its ambitiousness. The novel is 100 pages too long. (I know I’ve complained about this before, but why do writers think that “long” translates to “awesome”?) Moreover, towards the end it begins to get heavily descriptive and the story refuses to move along. Here, skipping pages is your friend, and that’s exactly what I did.
In the end, I’d say that to solve all the mysteries that the writer presents, it is worthwhile to finish the book. There’s a decent enough suspense and the book does get creepy at certain points, but not outright scary. I actually enjoyed the short stories a little more than I did the book in its entirety. But because the stories are intertwined so well and also overlap with the larger story, the book gets interesting too.
Update: I’m going through other readers’ reviews and I see a lot of frustration with regard to the ending. If anyone who has read the book happens to stop by here, please let’s discuss the end – because I was not confused at all!