Book Review: The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon

Characters: *** (3 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: ***1/2 (3 1/2 stars)

I read The Winter People a week ago, but was holding off on a review until I could let the story settle in my mind.  In the meantime, I actually got to meet Jennifer McMahon at a cocktail party in Boston. This means I had a chance to berate her with questions about the book over crudités and macarons.  Questions like “why the heck was that doll so sinister?” and “When do you think you’ll allow your young daughter to read your super creepy books?”.  She was so much fun to speak with; warm, kind, funny, and not at all unnerving despite the general tone of her fiction.  To be quite honest, I think The Winter People would only be getting 3 stars from me, had I sat down to write this review right after I closed the book.  But, after meeting Jennifer, I have a new appreciation for some of the little details which vexed me.  So bonus points for being delightful.

The Winter People is sort of a literary thriller, if I’m using that term correctly.  I don’t generally read much suspense fiction, preferring ancient-folklore-is-real-and-scary style horror to the find-them-before-its-too-late genre.  The Winter People had a good mix of both, though, not to mention a healthy dose of oh-crap-don’t-go-out-in-the-woods.  The novel’s events stem from  the tragic story of Sarah Harrison Shea, after her daughter disappears in the woods one winter in 1908.  Excerpts from Sarah’s secret diaries and her husband’s own experiences show how a mistake from the past can utterly ruin someone’s chance for future happiness, especially when that mistake involves betraying a pissed-off medicine woman and failing to appropriately dispose of her mystical belongings.  Oops.  Sarah’s friends and neighbors start to worry that she’s sinking into madness after Gertie is found dead, but there is someone scratching at the closet door and something killing animals in the snow.  Could it be that Sarah’s Auntie really taught her how to summon life back into the bodies of the dead when she was a child?  And how much misfortune must befall a devastated lady before we can forgive her for trying her hand at necromancy?  It should not come as a shock to any fans of supernatural mysteries that the price for tampering with natural fate is almost always much worse than the original tragedy.

Sarah’s dairy entries are revealed through a modern lens in The Winter People by way of two other personal encounters with whatever dreadful forces are at work in the woods of West Hall, Vermont.  Nineteen-year-old Ruthie and her sister Fawn live in Sarah Harrison Shea’s old farm house, and their mother has just gone missing.  Nothing to worry about; it’s not like they’re totally isolated, living near a stone circle called “The Devil’s Hand,” without computers, but with Fawn’s imaginary friends to keep them company!  Oh wait – yes they are, and I got very nervous right away for the girls’ wellbeing because I was immediately invested in their characters in a way which I couldn’t quite care about Sarah Harrison Shea.  Ruthie and Fawn are realistic and likable.  The elder sister’s valiant attempts to remain level-headed in times of crisis only made their eerie situation all the more urgent and uncanny, especially since things quickly escalated from the vaguely mysterious circumstances of their mother’s disappearance to a desperate hunt for answers underground, at gunpoint.

The modern chapters of The Winter People are full of action and investigation, while Sarah’s diary entries focus on a slow build of supernatural suspense and emotional disturbances.  In nearly all of my reading experiences, I’m more receptive to the latter sort of story.  Give me ancient curses and haunting visions, and I’ll be in my reading chair for the rest of the afternoon.  But I think that McMahon actually did a much better job bringing the characters and the story to life in Ruthie’s chapters of the book.  Naturally, the big concern was over Fawn’s safety as things rapidly progressed beyond the sisters’ control, but I also rather liked Ruthie’s UFO-spotting redneck boyfriend and even her exacting, slightly paranoid mother.  Maybe I knew that the Harrison Shea family was doomed from the start and gave up hope on a happy ending for them, but I was holding my breath for Fawn and Ruthie.  Whenever the little girl mentioned a creepy little fact she supposedly heard from her doll, and every time they discovered a new claustrophobic secret passageway in the house, I wanted to jump into the pages and help them get out of there ASAP.  There’s one scene in which Ruthie and her boyfriend honestly pry some boards off of a closet door which has been obviously barricaded from the outside to keep something in.  Ack!

The biggest flaw I found with The Winter People would have to lie in the minor characters who are meant to push the plot forward.  I couldn’t bring myself to care one way or another about the grieving artist who moved to Vermont and finds her fate intertwined with Ruthie’s and Sarah’s, despite the fact that I understood her importance to the mystery.  This book is as much a study of grief as it is a scary story, and this woman had lost her husband after he got tangled up in the supernatural draw of West Hall.  Her attempts to rediscover his last moments brought some important catalysts to the plot – and provided opportunities for exposition – but I just found her character to be a little too convenient.  The same goes for the baffling woman who holds the answers to some of Ruthie’s questions, a rich and possibly delusional lady who is also struggling with having a child taken away from her.  (McMahon writes a lot about lost children – several of her other novels seem to follow a similar theme.)  Sarah’s niece, who could have been really interesting given her fascination with mediums and the spiritualism of the early 20th century, also fell a little short of my expectations.  Of the three supernaturally-inclined ladies in the novel’s historical chapters, Auntie was the most intriguing, but even she wasn’t developed enough to be entirely believable as such an important character.  The superstitions behind the “sleepers” wasn’t explained in enough detail for my liking, but I tend to get overly enthusiastic about folklore and magical lore, and I don’t think that the book suffered too much for the vagueness of those details.  Maybe if Auntie had a bit more time in the spotlight, some of my questions would have been cleared up.  But I doubt many other readers will be bothered by the occasional lack of clarity, there. It’s really too bad that the minor characters fell flat, because the major characters were complex people with emotional depths which made their desperate – sometimes ill-advised – decisions stressful and compelling.

The little sensory details – like a girl-shaped figure in a blurry photograph or the sound of something scuttling around a dark room – amped up the tension in the book even when the plot itself threatened to fall into somewhat conventional patterns.  I really liked the way Jennifer McMahon could focus on how one small thing out of place can change the atmosphere entirely, and she carried those details from the historical chapters all the way to the modern, exciting conclusion.  As I reached the novel’s end I started to get really stressed out that things might not get resolved before I ran out of pages, but the ending was fairly satisfying if not a little hard to believe.  But, honestly, this is a book about grieving women raising the dead and terrified teenagers trying to put them back down again.  Suspend your disbelief for a while, especially if you like smart thrillers and can handle some chilling descriptions. Curl up with The Winter People and a blanket next time a snowstorm keeps you cooped up inside.

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Book Review : The Quick by Lauren Owen (coming out June, 2014)

Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: *** (3 stars)

Overall: *** (3 stars)

(Let it be hereby stated that I read an advanced reader’s edition of The Quick, which may still be waiting on final edits.)

When a friend and colleague of mine at the bookshop insisted that I read The Quick the moment she finished it, I knew right away that I would have lots to say about this debut novel. It’s one of my favorite kinds of story, in one of my favorite settings, but there are a few twists which caught us both off guard.  The Quick is a complex novel with a Victorian setting, a Gothic atmosphere, and a sweeping narrative. It’s also a monster story of sorts. I would have been utterly puzzled to realize – a hundred pages in – that there was some serious slaying to come, had my friend not mentioned her similar surprise. Neither the title nor the package revealed much about this book’s nature from the start. Since I have the galley and not the finished product of the book, I can’t help but wonder how heavily Random House intends to advertise the supernatural bent. On the back of my copy, it only says: “An astonishing debut novel of epic scope and suspense that conjures all the magic and menace of Victorian London”. Well, there’s menace aplenty and a grim sort of magic alongside what I can only call the “creature aspect” (to avoid spoiling too much). I was held in suspense once I finally got engrossed in the story, but it took me much longer than usual to immerse myself in Owen’s writing. As for the “epic scope,” I suppose that the many intertwining narratives and the multiple main characters prove that statement to be true.

The Quick starts out in Aiskew Hall, one of those large and drafty mansions in the English countryside which set the scene for so many sprawling novels. James and Charlotte are very young children when we first meet them, orphaned after their father’s death, and subject to uncertain futures. The scenes about the children’s games and fears were picturesque and I was charmed by their environment. I guess Lauren Owen grew up in an old Yorkshire boarding school, and her descriptions are excellent. From the secret passages indoors to the gardens outside, Aiskew Hall is a wonderful location. It’s too bad we don’t get to read more about it, as soon enough the setting switches to London.

Oh, Victorian London. So many distinctive tales have tramped up and down your streets – Dickens spin-offs have strolled alongside grisly horror stories. Sassy steampunk heroines now follow the same footsteps as eccentric detectives. There’s no real shortage of Gothic mysteries or supernatural horror crammed into that city’s ever-expanding boundaries of fiction, and I’m not sure if The Quick added anything too terribly new to the landscape. But there’s such an extensive literary heritage to late 19th century London that I do understand the appeal in borrowing the city’s peculiar brand of storytelling magic. While she doesn’t really break any new ground by setting her debut novel around a mysterious gentleman’s club in the darker parts of London, Owen does have a talent for creating atmosphere. I read the book over a couple of dreary late-November evenings and I was surprised every time I stepped outside to see neither hansom cabs nor top hats. I’m still keeping an eye out for ragamuffin pickpocket children (often my favorite characters in these sorts of books). When James and Charlotte experience the bustling hubbub of city life for the first time, their confusion and awe made the disorienting metropolis seem immediate and real.

After graduation, James moves to London and gets rooms with an eccentric friend-of-a-friend. He tries his hand at writing poetry, then moves on to plays after they see a production by some bloke named Wilde. Christopher Paige is lively and dashing while James is more of a reserved, respectful sort of fellow. Their personalities clash nicely and as their friendship deepens we get an entertaining glance at life in London for gentlemen with money enough to make society’s expectations the most pressing of their problems. It took a while, but eventually I found myself absorbed into the details of domestic issues and witty banter.

Right as their story started to get really interesting, though, Part II of The Quick introduces an entirely new point of view and style. I felt marooned and disoriented to be suddenly presented with The Notebooks of Augustus Mould in Chapter Six, and not only because the heading reminded me a little of The Secret Diaries of Adrian Mole by Sue Townsend (a very different sort of book indeed, though equally British). At this point, Owen started to take a Dracula-esque approach to her narrative. By treating the excerpts from Mould’s notebooks as an active component of the story, and by using shifts in perspective to take the plot in an entirely different direction, the novel introduces four or five new plot lines and main characters.

A threatening presence causes gossip in London, haughty idealists take charge of a secret society, a little girl learns why some streets are off-limits, and a shared tragedy brings two unlikely friends together to face an evil which is damned difficult to kill. As the story progresses we do come to understand how everyone will eventually interact to create a high-stakes confrontation, but I spent half the book trying to find connections rather than giving my full attention to the plot. Much in Stoker’s style, Owen uses her structure to show how menace can unite people and affect a great many lives. I do wish she had brought the different groups of characters together earlier on, though, especially since the men and women themselves were distinctive and their interactions were downright fun to witness. The pacing was stilted at times, which detracted from the strong descriptions and appealing aesthetic. In the second half of the book, I found some redemption when the many different threads eventually did come together to propel us towards an exciting conclusion. The focus was just a little off – too many influences from the genre’s long history were vying for attention – and I felt that the novel couldn’t quite contain its own scope.

The author has borrowed an awful lot from her literary predecessors: The Quick contains distinctive elements of Dickens, Stoker, Shelley, Poe, Anne Rice, and Robert Louis Stevenson. The editor’s note which came with the galley mentioned that Lauren Owen started out writing fan fiction of Harry Potter and Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a teenager. Push through the slow start and clunky narrative shifts to where the action begins, and you’ll see how Joss Whedon has made his mark. Even though I had a hard time getting comfortable with the balance between the book’s Victorian style and its eventual supernatural standoffs, I had a great time with each of those aspects in their own way. Some characters seemed straight out of Great Expectations, what with their moral qualms and social hardships. Others were gunslingin’ badasses with tragic pasts. I was happy to read about violent little kids and a mysterious occult library, though there were times when I wondered if I should be reading two different books instead of this one.

Now that I’ve finished reading The Quick, I’m intrigued to see what sort of reaction it will get once it’s released into the wild. I think there’s some strong writing and great characters, and while the premise isn’t particularly original it was interesting and fun. The target demographic of readers is difficult to define, though. You’ll need to have an appreciation for Victorian sensibilities in order to get through the first half of the book, but you can’t be too picky about style or easily annoyed by clunky narrative structures. On the other hand, it might appeal to readers of dark and violent Gothic adventures like The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray – tense stories which don’t rely too heavily on historical realism – but the language might make the pace drag on for fans of that genre. I happen to be right in the middle of that spectrum and did enjoy The Quick. Anyone picking up the book will find it necessary to suspend their judgement and expectations along with their disbelief. If you can do that, then the interesting descriptions; absorbing atmosphere; and memorable characters will keep you reading right through to the book’s mysterious ending.

If you liked that show “Ripper Street,” I think you’ll feel right at home in The Quick. If you were enchanted by Erin Morgenstern’s novel The Night Circus (Rosie and I reviewed it here) you will probably enjoy it, too. The Quick is less stunningly magical than The Night Circus was, but I think the characters were more believable and the personal relationships were handled better. I read books for the atmosphere more than anything else, and I’m happy I stuck with The Quick. You can definitely tell that it’s a first novel, and I hope that Lauren Owen will develop a style which is more distinctly her own as her writing progresses. I will absolutely be keeping an eye out for any of her future work, and I hope she continues to write darkly aesthetic stories which transport us to a more mysterious time and place.