Reviewed by Bookgazing
Every October, Cara’s family is beset by accidents big and small. The family all refer to this month as ‘the accident season’ and try to take extra care – covering floors in rugs and adding padding to sharp corners. Sadly, none of these preventative measures seems to help. While the family shores up against every accident they can anticipate, unexpected danger is always lurking around the corner. Cara’s grandfather, father and uncle were all killed in separate accident seasons, and the rest of the family are personally known to hospital staff.
I suspect the central concept of The Accident Season, Moira Fowley-Doyle’s debut YA novel, is going to prove a sticking point for some readers. None of the book’s characters seem invested in discussing why their family and only their family is plagued by these accidents. They are similarly unconcerned with uncovering why these accidents only happen in October, why they abruptly stop at the end of the month, and why they also affect newly added, non-biological family members. There is no immediate explanation for the localisation of the accident season. This lack of reasoning and investigative spirit initially undermines the book, and may leave some readers struggling to suspend their disbelief and connect with the story.
Trust me though readers, you want to stick with this book. You see, The Accident Season teases its readers into following a set of fairly reasonable assumptions down a path of red herrings. The Accident Season is a surprising book, which eventually delivers a kick of a twist.
Unfortunately, the twist makes it difficult to talk much about the novel’s plot, genre or the central relationships between its characters without spoiling the reader’s journey through this fascinating novel. Once the reader sees the accident season clearly, the story inevitably draws comparisons to E. Lockhart’s wonderful We Were Liars, and to a lesser extent Justine Larbalestier’s jaw dropping Liar. Both of those books are difficult to review without affecting the reader’s initial relationship with the text because they gradually uncover shocks and secrets that alter the whole shape of their stories. Let’s see if I can convince you that The Accident Season is worth a go without giving the whole game away.
As The Accident Season opens, Cara’s family are gearing up for another dangerous October. However, despite the obvious menace of the accident season, it is not Cara’s greatest concern. While potentially deadly, the accident season has become a normal threat. Cara is more immediately preoccupied with the fact that a girl called Elsie, who Cara used to be friends with, now appears in all of her pictures. Elsie’s hair, knees, cardigan and shoes appear to have worked their way into the edges of photos where she can’t possibly have been present. What’s more Elsie has disappeared from school. And despite the fact that she runs the school’s notorious ‘secrets booth’ no one apart from Cara, her best friend Bea, Cara’s ex-step brother Sam, and her sister Alice really seem to have a clear memory of Elsie. As Cara says, even for a family plagued by its very own accident season this is ‘a little weirder than usual…’.
The Accident Season is fantastic at generating a creepy atmosphere. It features several memorable spooky settings powered by menace and traditional horror imagery: a vanishing costume shop where all the props are a little too lifelike; a river that mysteriously ices over, and a ghost house that appears to have a life of its own. Perhaps the novel’s most impressive achievement is its ability to maintain that sense of danger in any situation; to make the hairs on the back of the reader’s neck prickle as they read about a sunlit street and a candlelit room possessed with ghostly energy. Even the school’s art installation of anonymous secrets contributes a Blair Witch vibe, which is only emphasised by later discoveries. The reader is always aware that the characters are in a constant state of danger, whether from the season or from some outside, unidentified force. The Accident Season brings all the atmospheric intensity of a good horror novel, and uses this intensity to pacey effect.
Yes, The Accident Season certainly gets horror. It doesn’t just make scary use of the genre’s tropes, the novel is interested in investigating the subtext of horror as well. Much like We Were Liars, The Accident Season contains a recurring fairytale strand, which is first introduced as a strange, supernatural force which breaks into the real world but is eventually revealed to be more of a psychological device. The descriptions of these fairytale visions are very visceral, smart and never fully confirmed as reality or illusion. This strand reads like an author influenced by Angela Carter. The inclusion of a ghost house that seems to feed off sexual energy sounds like a Shirley Jackson inspired idea.
While the characterisation, detailing and final finesse of The Accident Season isn’t quite a match for Liar or We Were Liars it’s definitely a solid choice for readers who enjoyed the dark side of those novels. And Fowley-Doyle has a killer way with an arresting sentence. From the opening line of the first chapter ‘Elsie is in all my pictures’ to the girl’s first realisation that the accident season is upon them – ‘Granda Morris had gone to Heaven and it wasn’t safe to play outside anymore’ – the sharp prose grabs holds the reader.
By the end of The Accident Season nothing is as it originally appeared. Genre markers have been thoroughly messed about with, all the family’s secrets are spread on the ground, and romances have sprung up between characters the reader might not have paired at the beginning of the novel, including two of the girls. A quick note on that relationship: I suspect the setup of that storyline is going to be much discussed by reviewers because of the history of lesbian and bisexual love stories. They both make it to the end of the novel at least, but I will warn that the car crash trope that haunts LGBTQ stories appears and the construction of this relationship may mean some readers will want to get spoilers for the twist before opening this book.
Overall, The Accident Season integrates and deals with its game changing revelations in a largely satisfying manner. And it stands out as the best ‘twist in the tale’ YA narrative I’ve read this year. Which, in a YA market becoming steadily more saturated by stories that suddenly flip the script, is high praise for a debut novel.