The Short Version: Jake Whyte lives by herself, raising sheep, in a small farm community on an island off the coast of England. She’s fled from a bleak past in Australia, revealed over the course of the novel – and possibly hunted now by some strange creature killing her sheep. When a mysterious man comes to stay with her, she must address both her history and her present.
The Review: What a curious novel. It reads in almost a single sitting, thanks to some propulsive writing and short chapters… but I almost think that it requires greater input than the flow would imply. I say this because I feel like I might’ve… not missed something but like it just wasn’t there to begin with, but that I might’ve seen it had I looked harder? Let me expound on this.
The novel begins with a looming sort of dread, veering awfully close to proper horror at some points. The first lines of the novel describe Jake finding the brutally attacked body of one of her sheep. It would seem to be some kind of creature’s doing, nothing human – and nothing as ordinary as a fox or a wolf. We’re immediately on our guard, for there is something definitely wrong, and a few chapters later when a malevolent presence seems to torment Jake while she’s asleep, I nearly jumped out of my skin. That single chapter is one of the scariest things I think I’ve ever read – but very quickly the book establishes that its style of horror isn’t that kind of horror. Wyld feints at it, with the mysterious creature and these bump-in-the-night moments, but she doesn’t let the novel slide into genre. This is both a good and bad thing; I think she can write a hell of a scary scene and would love to see her absolutely scare the pants off readers… but the lurking dread of this novel serves a longer-lasting purpose.
Chronologically, it takes a little while to get your bearings. Jake’s time in England is in the present, but the chapters alternate with some of her history – a history that moves backward as it progresses, meaning that the book ends with both the earliest and latest points that we get to see of Jake’s life. The disjointed past also makes it kind of difficult to latch onto that story – the reverse chronology makes these moments only truly understood in retrospect. The perfect example is Jake’s relationship to Otto (e.g. Is it a weird family thing? Creepy cult? Kidnapping?). As the reader is let in on more of the past, Jake’s present but also the things we’ve read before begin to resolve – they just don’t seem to quite come together before the novel ends.
But this feels like it’s Wyld’s intent; she wants us to feel frustrated, just a little bit, by the way things don’t entirely cohere. The mystery of the strange creature is, at the end of the day, less interesting to her than the workings of Jake’s mind. Here’s a woman who is deeply capable: she can shear a sheep better than most men, she’s not afraid of deadly spiders, she’s quite content to live alone and be independent… and yet there’s clearly something unstable going on with her. Is it her guilt over her crime (revealed at the end)? Is it a lasting psychological scar from her time with Otto? We’re never allowed to know completely, just see flashes of what it could be and how it could be confronted/overcome.
And that, as ever, is a good thing. I don’t know about you, but I like it when a book doesn’t immediately reveal itself. When it might never reveal itself. Sure, it’s fun to get all the answers – but when you’re dealing with something as complex as a human being, it’s important to remember that sometimes it’s too complex to ever know. And that mysteries sometimes stay mysterious, not in an aggravating way but in a way where just… “yeah, man, was that Bigfoot? Was that Black Shuck? Who knows!”
In that sort of way.
Rating: 4 out of 5. The combination of a quick read and a complex one is not something you come across that often, so I’m still reeling a little bit from this book. There are moments of horror, both serious jump-scares and also just the terrible things that people can do to one another… but there are also some moments of simple beauty. It’s almost too much to call them beauty; they are moments of goodness. Serenity, simplicity. It’s a remarkable novel, not quite like anything I’ve read lately even as it reminded me of so many other things. And were it not for Jeff VanderMeer, I’d never have heard of it – and if it weren’t for the ToB, I’d never have picked it up.