Toon’s summoning of place is impressive, but Pine doesn’t have the immersive sense of suspenseful horror that writers such as Andrew Michael Hurley (The Loney and Starve Acre) and Michelle Paver (Wakenhyrst) have been demonstrating of late. There’s something a bit too vague and disjointed in the way her elements are brought together, which is frustrating rather than chillingly enigmatic, and her dialogue can be irksomely terse and flat. Fewer of the stock spooky motifs more rigorously deployed may have helped. The forlorn figure of Lauren, however, struggling with her loss, is a haunting figure, for very different reasons.
It’s impossible to go into much detail without giving away the ending, but suffice to say that, with only a relatively small cast of characters, readers trying to guess what happens next will only be left with a very limited range of options to choose from. For the most part, the supernatural elements of the story are well-handled, with the ambiguity of what may or may not be happening enhancing the general sense of unease. Then again, there is so much about these mysterious goings-on that is left unexplained that you can’t help wondering if the novel might have functioned perfectly well without them.
The language is clean and spare, refreshingly rooted in the everyday: Lauren’s little world may have a ghost in it but it also has Monster Munch, the Beano, lemon Fanta. What lets the narrative down is its reliance on the conventional tropes of the ghost-story genre. The sound of dripping, the rank smell, the empty house, the dark forest, the mysterious phone call, the “woman in white” … it’s the stuff of a thousand campfires and Hollywood films. Why rely on these tired old warhorses when, with such an atmospheric setting and strong characters, there’s so much else here to draw on?
Toon’s poetry background — her work is published under the name Francine Elena — is evident in her style (“The hilly land stretches into yellows, deep greens and deciduous orange”), and the novel’s strength is its evocation of bleak landscapes and complex characters. But too much time is given to creating a sense of mystery: we are told in the blurb that teenager Ann-Marie has gone missing, but she doesn’t actually disappear until two-thirds of the way through, leaving the book skidding to a rushed conclusion.
The meandering also affects the plot. While Toon is excellent at scene setting, the book, for all its ghostly sightings, lacks suspense. At times it can be repetitive – Lauren’s bullying, Christine’s paganism – and the author struggles when it comes to the balance of mystery and vagueness. Deliberately elliptical conversations between the adult characters can sometimes translate to lack of depth, as with the relationship between Niall and the local doctor Caitríona.
Toon’s evocative writing does much to offset these issues. She knows how to immerse readers in her world, with an eye for detail that shows her poetic sensibility: “A couple of trout lie on the glass chopping board. She picks up one and slides a long, thin knife under its left fin, cutting deep towards the head. Her bouncy hair is tied back with a polka-dot ribbon and her short nails are painted a cherry-juice red.”