The Mountains of Instead

Championing fiction as an escape from pandemics, politics and bad TV.

Home, Sweet Home (Review: Sweet Damage by Rebecca James)

Sweet Damage
Rebecca James
Faber & Faber 2014

In his early twenties, Tim Ellison has yet to decide what to do with his life. In fact, he's not really in a hurry to decide and spends his time crashing at his ex's apartment, working in the family restaurant and surfing. Eventually, his stay with Lilla (said ex) becomes untenable and he finds himself a cheap room in Fairview, a beautiful house far outwith his usual means. Looking for the catch, all he can see is his fellow housemate, the reclusive Anna. Yet, as time passes and he becomes attached to not only his surroundings but also to Anna, things start to go bump in the night. As his new home becomes the location of some increasingly eerie phenomenon, Tim starts to wonder about the secrets that keep his housemate housebound and whether it might not be better for him to leave her and Fairview behind forever.

Genuine and happy-go-lucky, Tim really does just want an easy life. Nice to everyone he meets, the strangeness of Anne doesn't put him off living with her nor make him treat her differently, instead he treats her with real kindness. Tim, in short, is a good bloke. The kind of bloke who will always give a second chance, and a third and maybe even a fourth. Which explains why he cannot seem to break free of manipulative ex, Lilla. However, he's no fool - in fact, he's pretty smart- and is not as easily taken advantage off as one might assume. His growing fondness for Anna is very touching and his unease at goings on both palpable and believable.

While Tim is rather lovely, Lilla is a stone cold bitch. Strong words, yes, but she is utterly unlikable from the start. While she clearly no longer wants Tim, she still wants him to want her and infiltrates his life at every turn. Her treatment of Anna is particularly horrid. As a character, she transcends the predictability of your average mean girl and, awful as she is, she is totally fascinating. Anna herself is a bit of a wet rag to begin with, creeping about her house like a tired mouse. As her story unfolds, she becomes alternately more likeable and admirable or more frightening, depending on how you read her. Other characters are thin on the ground but the ever present Fiona and Marcus are both vital to the story and also almost impossible to get a bead on, which works extremely well as their rather staid, straight-laced presence adds yet another layer of murk to an already eerie story.

Sweet Damage has an interesting and deceptively predictable story - just when it seems sure to go one way, Rebecca James turns it all around. It's fairly creepy but simplistically written, denying readers any real leave-the-lights on moments in terms of the weird happenings around Fairview. The opening of the book seems to set Fairview up as a kind of Manderley, which no-one should ever do unless they can deliver the oppressive, all consuming presence that Manderley represents in Du Maurier's Rebecca - which James, sadly, can't.  However, the subject matter itself is extremely dark and it is in Anna's story that Sweet Damage delivers real horror - all the more shocking for the simplicity with which it is told. All in all, Sweet Damage is a compelling read. While it won't necessarily stay with readers for long it is a decent mystery and one that will have you turning the pages with dark glee as James's pieces start falling into place. This would make the perfect beach read this summer and is particularly recommended to those who enjoyed James Dawson's Cruel Summer and Abigail Haas's Dangerous Girls

This review was brought to you by Splendibird. Sweet Damage is available now.  Thank you to Faber & Faber for sending us this title to review.

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