Imagine waking at sunrise with no memory of who you are, and yet a woman’s name is on your lips as you gain consciousness. You are in an unfamiliar wilderness, damp, cold, injured, mind blank except for some urgent, shadowy need to find Anna! Who is Anna? Who are you? Why is your arm bleeding?
Your day begins with panic and pain, it ends with being attacked, knocked unconscious once again, then you wake … in someone else’s body. Again. And again. On exactly the same day. Each time with memories gleaned from inside those strangers’ bodies, feeling their minds, their personalities pressing against a growing sense of … is it memory of self?
You are Aiden. You are desperate to save Anna. You have been instructed to solve another woman’s murder. You need to escape this place before you go completely insane. Maybe you’re already insane. Maybe you’re in Hell and everyone around you is a lying devil trying to drive you insane … but wait! It is a horrible game that you have to win. A puzzle you must solve in eight days or else you’re doomed to relive it all again.
Stuart Turton’s first novel, The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, is the first book I have read cover to cover since last summer. Midway through, I think my soul exhaled. Why I haven’t been reading (or writing) in the past year is beside the point. I really needed this book. True, it’s one of those first novels that has almost too many plot twists and genre mashes to count crammed between 400 pages. But I’m totally cool with that.
My very soul has missed reading. It has been far too long since I was immersed in imagery someone else created, heard the voices of richly outlined characters, was on the edge of my seat fully invested in chasing any tidbit of a clue if the damn thing brought me to the truth and a halfway decent ending! And once I got a good enough ending, I was rather embarrassed about the number of red herrings I’d chased to the very edges of Blackheath Manor. Then I laughed at myself for being embarrassed. (But seriously, I’m known for solving whodunnits halfway through–which is why my husband has refused to watch murder mysteries with me for years because I “spoil the endings!”)
Turton’s novel has been billed as a wild mash up of Agatha Christie whodunnits, Quantum Leap (one of my favorite TV shows in the 90s), Downton Abbey, and Groundhog Day (Bill Murray couldn’t have made it through this one, though). The author himself mentions in an interview that Quantum Leap was one of his favorite TV shows, and he read Agatha Christie, but he also said that inspiration for his story can’t really be nailed down to one single point of origin.
Whatever the point of origin or decades of scattered, shiny slips of inspiration, whatever the impetus that got him in that chair on some random day to begin writing Aiden Bishop’s dilemma on a blank page, I’m glad he followed through. Because the result is a wholly original thing. Inventive descriptions and sharp dialogue spoken in varying degrees of English accents, set at the turn of the 20th century within the boundaries of a weary, crumbling, once grand old estate.
There are dozens of snooty English folks changing clothes every few hours, milling around, drinking too much, who whisper about just what might be the cause of such a grand old place falling into disrepair–they revel in rumors and innuendo. Gossip flows as heavily as the champagne, brandy, and blood at this weekend party. But those whispering, snooty folks are mostly background noise–only a few guests at Blackheath Manor are relevant to Aiden Bishop’s dilemma. And even fewer are aware that his consciousness is transferring to different bodies each day.
There are horrific murders, sad backstories, sociopaths and at least one rapist, conniving fops, cold, dismissive women, cruel con artists and blackmailers, and damsels in distress that seem to find a way to save themselves more often than not. And then there’s Aiden beginning to understand that this place, this “game” must have been built to tear its players down to base human instinct, kill or be killed, do anything to survive. And he refuses to fall into the trap. He decides to be better. To fight cleaner. To save everyone. Even Anna, who just like everyone else at Blackheath Manor, isn’t who she seems at all. Even once he realizes that he’s been a player in this game many, many times before.
Kirkus Reviews made a rather pointless statement in my opinion: “…it’s a fiendishly clever and amusing novel with explosive surprises, though in the absence of genuine feeling, it tends to keep its audience at arm’s length.”
I suppose the writer of that critique was obligated to throw in something negative. Truth is, yes, the audience is kept at arm’s length with some of the characters. Just as Aiden struggles to keep some of his emotions at arm’s length in order to process what information is relevant to his survival. He can’t afford to take time to grieve, to freak out, or at least he learns the hard way not to do it twice. I think that struggle is conveyed well.
And just for the record, arm’s length is a good enough space between me and bloody murder, suicide by gunshot, forced marriage for the sake of the family fortune, or being haunted by the creepy masked choreographer of one terrible fate after another. Trust me when I say there is plenty of genuine feeling–yes, it’s often the early 20th century upper crust English flavored kind of feeling. Tepid by breeding, but genuine, nonetheless. So, let’s stick with “… it’s a fiendishly clever and amusing novel with explosive surprises”, shall we?