Reviewed by Harriet
I forget everything between footsteps.
‘Anna!’ I finish shouting, snapping my mouth shut in surprise.
My mind has gone blank. I don’t know who Anna is or why I’m calling her name. I don’t even know how I got here. I’m standing in a forest, shielding my eyes from the spitting rain. My heart’s thumping, I reek of sweat and my legs are shaking. I must have been running but I can’t remember why.
So begins this completely mind-bending, exciting, confusing tour-de-force, in which a man, who we discover later is called Aiden Bishop, finds himself at a party in remote, crumbling, ivy-covered Blackheath House, with no idea of how he got there. What’s more, he’s not there as Aiden at all – instead he finds himself inhabiting the various different bodies of his fellow guests, one every day, for eight days. In addition, every day is actually the same day, repeated endlessly. He still has no idea of how he got there or why he was chosen, but a certain amount of information gradually comes his way. He meets a mysteriously disguised character in a bird-like mask and a long black coat who he comes to know as the Plague Doctor, and who tells him there is only one way to escape from this seemingly endless cycle of change and repetition: ‘Somebody’s going to be murdered at the ball tonight. It won’t appear to be a murder and so the murderer won’t get caught. Rectify that injustice and I’ll show you the way out’. And indeed, every night, at the end of the party, Evelyn Hardcastle, the daughter of the hosts, will die, though it will appear to be by her own hand. Aiden has eight days to discover her murderer; if he fails, the whole cycle begins and will continue endlessly until he solves the problem.
The skill with which all this has been constructed is breathtaking. As each day repeats itself Aiden, by virtue of the fact that each time he experiences it he’s in a different body, gets to witness different hours of the day, or the same hours from different perspectives. By virtue of this he is gradually enabled to build up a full, or fullish, picture of the events leading up to Evelyn’s death. But with each new incarnation he is hampered by the fact that he has taken on a new body, and with it something of the personality of the original inhabitant. At first he is fairly much able to combat the alien personality and recognise it for what it is, but as time goes on this becomes increasingly difficult, and by the end he has to work really hard to combat the latent tendencies of his host. And the bodies he has to inhabit are increasingly unpleasant, hampering his chances to think and act clearly. From his first incarnation, a doctor who specialises in selling laudanum to his patients, he passes through, among others, a grossly overweight and unhealthy ageing man, who Evelyn has been coerced into agreeing to marry, and an unpleasant young man who proves to be a violent rapist. Each time he has to fight the original tendencies and physical disabilities of his host in order to pursue his goal. From time to time he reverts back to an early host, the butler, who has been savagely beaten up and is lying in bed at death’s door. In addition, there’s nobody in the house he can entirely trust – he’s constantly pursued by a malevolent footman, and uncertain if he can trust even the few people who know his secret. Among these is Anna, working as a maid, who befriends him and offers him help, but against whom he is constantly being warned. Will Aiden escape the cycle and manage to escape from Blackheath?
This is so much more than a straightforward murder mystery, but that element is definitely present – in fact there are two murders in question here as, in addition to Evelyn’s recurring death Aiden also has to try to solve the mysterious death of her young brother, who drowned in the lake some twenty years earlier. Both these are resolved in a denouement that I certainly didn’t see coming. But you won’t be reading the novel just for this. It provides a world to plunge into and get completely lost in, and I found it impossible to decide when exactly it was supposed to be taking place: you might think of it as Victorian, with the laudanum and the trappings of country house life, but people also drive cars and women wear jodhpurs, which suggests the twentieth century. This is obviously deliberate, increasing the sense of dislocation that we, and of course Aiden, are constantly experiencing. A fascinating, absorbing read for anyone who likes something challenging and wholly original.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books
Stuart Turton, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle (Raven Books, 2018). 978-1408889565, 528pp., hardback.
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