Angry Robot (2009)
Reviewed by Martin Livings (this review was first published in November 2009)
Stevie is a young woman with some issues. Her beloved policeman father was killed in the line of duty when she was just a little girl, her mother died in a car accident while Stevie was driving, and her brother is a self-help guru and aspiring politician whose ambitious wife loathes her.
Oh, and in her spare time, she occasionally kills people to find out where they go when they die. You see, Stevie herself has nearly died a number of times, sometimes by accident, sometimes … not. And every time she has, she’s found herself in a dark place, trapped in a room and surrounded and tormented by the people she’s slighted in her life. She wants to know why that is, both horrified and strangely attracted to it. And she also wants to know why she keeps finding bones in her backyard, along with trinkets that may have belonged to people who’ve gone missing over the years.
The cover of Kaaron Warren’s first novel, Slights, published by new imprint Angry Robot, gives the quite deceptive impression of a pure horror novel, a tale of supernatural revenge and terror. However, it’s not really indicative of what lies within its pages; this is not your Stephen King or Clive Barker, and may even disappoint the hard-core horror reader expecting that. This is really a slipstream novel, flirting with the trangressional fiction genre made popular by writers like Bret Easton Ellis or Chuck Palahniuk. In fact, for me, the echoes of Palahniuk are all through this book; the highly personal and subjective first-person viewpoint, more stream-of-consciousness than conventional narration, and the blasé and off-hand descriptions of horrific events are very reminiscent of his work in books such as Fight Club,Survivor and Lullaby. What makes Warren’s book so very different, though, is the distinctive voice in which it’s written. Year by year in her chaotic life, Stevie is beautifully drawn, consistent in her inconsistencies and eccentricities, and utterly believable even as we gasp in horror at the things she does. She’s a completely unreliable and unlikable narrator,a repellent and immoral creature that we’re nonetheless forced by the strength of the writing to empathise with, and in doing so we become somehow complicit in her crimes, both minor and major.
There are some criticisms that can be leveled at Slights. One review I read accused it of being unfocused and uneven, and that’s a fair statement, the narrative leaping around so much that it was occasionally confusing. A few times while reading it, I wished the information was spread a little more evenly through the book; from time to time we’re hit with enormous chunks of backstory and infodump, especially towards the end of the book. There’s necessary repetition as well, of course, Stevie going through the exact same destructive behaviours time and time again, but then that’s kind of the point of the book. And Stevie’s refusal to accept or acknowledge her family’s history, even when it was slapping her in the face, was occasionally a little frustrating. But these criticisms are so minor as to be almost irrelevant, quibbles about style that are purely personal taste.
At its dark heart, this is a novel about families and how they function, or fail to function, after tragedy. Stevie is the broken child who’s never allowed or forced to grow up, skimming through her adult life and relationships without ever really interacting with them, trying to find meaning in the one constant in her world, death. And despite its relentless darkness, it ends on a transcendent and redemptive note that, from a less talented writer, may have come across as cheesy, a Hollywood happy ending, but from Warren it seemed the logical and necessary conclusion to the tale. It simply couldn’t have finished any other way, and was entirely satisfying.
Slights is a wonderful debut novel from Warren, stylistic and uncompromising and unique. And judging by both this and the preview of her next novel, Mistification, that was included at the end of the book, I think I’ll be buying more of her works as soon as they hit the shelves.