|Cover used with|
permission of author.
by Alison Littlewood
Cass is building a new life for herself and her young son Ben after the death of her soldier husband Pete, returning to the village where she lived as a child. But their idyllic new home is not what she expected: the other flats are all empty, there's strange graffiti on the walls, and the villagers are a bit odd. And when an unexpectedly heavy snowstorm maroons the village, things get even harder. Ben is changing, he's surly and aggressive and Cass's only confidant is the smooth, charming Theodore Remick, the stand-in headmaster.
After losing her husband in Afghanistan, Cass moves with her son Ben to Darnshaw, a village she lived in for a short time as a child. She has mixed memories of the place; her father had been the vicar for a while and Cass feels she's lost him to the church and God. But the village is not how she remembered it. Most of the locals are unfriendly, except for the charismatic replacement headmaster. Foxdene Mill, an old mill converted into flats is to be their new home, but Cass and Ben are the only occupants except for rats or mice that are scratching in the walls. The place is half-finished, but there is no sign of the builders. As soon as they arrive, Cass starts having strange dreams and Ben turns into someone she doesn't recognise at all. He becomes sullen and violent with her, not all like the child she knows. When the snow falls shortly after their move, Cass and Ben are effectively trapped in the village. There are no phones, no email, no post, no way to contact anyone else and very little food in the local shop. Cass and Ben are on their own.
This book was wonderful from start to finish. The style of writing is quite simple and everyday, but it draws you in and keeps you reading well into the night. There's a flow to the words, despite their simplicity. Cass is the narrator for the whole book, which might have meant that you feel you've missed out on other parts, but you don't. It reminds me of some of the earlier Stephen King's, where strange things happen to ordinary people.
The snow and the village are almost characters in themselves and there is a deep sense of claustrophobia as you read about how they can't get out of the village and no help can get in.
Cass and Ben seem quite ordinary and the book starts off with mundane things, such as their move and settling in, but it isn't long before the strange things start happening. Why are most of the other villagers so unfriendly to Cass, but welcome Ben with open arms? Cass wonders if she is going mad and imaging things, so the reader wonders as well. Is she a reliable narrator? We never really find out, which leaves the reader guessing too. There is a small twist at the end, which I didn't guess, and it leaves it open for a sequel one day perhaps, but it does have an end and doesn't leave you hanging. I got to grips with most of the characters, but we never find out Ben's age. We just know he's a child at primary school. But is he five or ten? That would make a difference to how I envisioned him.
There are some tones reminiscent of things like The Wicker Man, but as they say there is nothing new under the sun. A writer may take a universal theme and make it their own. In the end, it's not just down to the story, but the delivery of it. And in that delivery, Ms. Littlwood has created a gem. I'll certainly look out for more of her work in future.
Reviewed by Annette Gisby
Library copy reviewed.