I can’t even begin to imagine how much time and effort must have gone into the writing of this novel! I’ve never read anything like it before and I hardly know how to begin to describe it. It has all the elements of a classic murder mystery – but there’s a clue in the title: the same murder happens not just once but seven times.
The novel opens with a man waking up in a forest with no memory of who he is or how he came to be there. He has the name ‘Anna’ in his mind, although he has no idea who Anna might be. Hearing a woman scream, he rushes to help but is stopped by a stranger who pushes a compass into his pocket and whispers ‘East’. Following these instructions, he finds his way out of the woods and into the grounds of nearby Blackheath House, where the situation becomes even more bizarre. He discovers that he is a doctor called Sebastian Bell and that he is a guest at Blackheath where the Hardcastle family are throwing a party to mark the nineteenth anniversary of their son’s death.
All through the long and bewildering day which follows, Bell tries to make sense of what is happening, only to end up more confused than ever. Eventually, he is approached by a man wearing the costume of a Plague Doctor, who appears to have some of the answers. It seems that the Hardcastles’ daughter, Evelyn, is going to be murdered later that night and Bell’s task is to solve the murder. Should he fail, he will have the chance to live through the day again…but this time he will be someone else. Eight days and eight different ‘host bodies’; if at the end of that time he can provide a solution, he will be allowed to leave Blackheath. If not, he will go back to day one and the whole sequence will begin again…as it already has, many times before.
Everything I’ve said so far is explained to our narrator early in the novel. Once he begins waking up as the other hosts, however, things quickly become very complicated, with new clues and pieces of information coming to light on almost every page. I won’t say any more about the story itself, then, other than in general terms. I won’t even tell you who the other hosts are, as part of the fun is in wondering who the narrator is going to be next. Each host, though, has different strengths and weaknesses and is connected to the murder in a different way. It’s fascinating to see how each of them alone sees only a small part of the picture, and the truth only begins to emerge when all of their collective experiences and observations are taken into account.
This is an incredibly clever novel and so intricately plotted I have no idea how Stuart Turton managed to keep track of it all. Although it’s a long book, my recommendation is to read it in as few sittings as possible so you can try to hold on to all the threads of the story in your head. If your experience is anything like mine you’ll quickly become so engrossed that you won’t want to stop anyway. And experience is the right word for it. This doesn’t feel like a normal novel at all. It reminded me in some ways of one of those ‘choose your own adventure’ books I loved as a child where you could make choices that led to different routes through the story. That’s how I felt as the narrator lived through the same events again and again, trying to decide what he did wrong last time.
The novel is written in the first person present tense – a style I usually dislike but which is used very effectively here. It gives the reader a sense of being dropped directly into the middle of the action and sharing the narrator’s panic and disorientation. I don’t think it would have worked had it been written any other way. The writing is not completely flawless, though; maybe I’m just being too pedantic again but it irritates me to see phrases like ‘I am sat’ and ‘he is stood’ in print. This is only a small criticism, however – I thoroughly enjoyed this unusual and wonderfully imaginative novel.
Thanks to Raven Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.